When Covid-19 chased my family indoors, and our traditional Easter gathering was clearly not going to happen, I used my professional account to invite my family to a Zoom meeting to acknowledge the holiday and to be together.

Normally our family gatherings revolve around the communion of food – we start with a big hors d’ouvre tray. I invited my siblings, mother and aunt to bring their wine and hors d’ouvres to the screen for 5:00 p.m.

But it turned out there was more to it than the food and wine.

On Easter, as family members arrived in my Zoom Room and caught sight of each other, the conversation level began to rise in decibels and chaos.  Add to that the technical issues of satellite lag time, better or worse microphones, speakers and internet connections, and within five minutes it felt to me as if it was spiralling out of control or usefulness. This was the very first “unstructured” online gathering I’d ever hosted and I hadn’t considered the logistics.

My internal facilitator sat up straight.  You have to do something! she said to me.

Part of me protested, But who am I to impose rules on this?

You have to, she reiterated. Someone has to if this is going to work. You know how to do this!

So with a pounding heart, I interrupted.  “Okay!  My room, my rules! This is how it’s going to work.”  I told them I would call on them in the order they were displayed on my screen.   And then I assigned talking points. “When it’s your turn, we’d like to hear one good thing from this past couple of weeks of social isolation and one thing you’ve found challenging.“

It took an hour to go round and hear from everybody. My aunt set us all laughing early by joking about how her hors d’ouvres weren’t up to the usual Reynolds-gathering snuff.  That set us all to commenting on the quality of our own snacks when it came time for each one to speak.

We have a large family – I’m the oldest of six (which may be another reason I took control. My siblings might call it bossiness).  One very cool thing about the Easter gathering was that because it was on Zoom and late in the day we had family members join who wouldn’t possibly have been able to come to an Easter dinner in Ontario. There were at least 18 people on the screen that evening.  Everyone had a chance to talk and to say something honest about what was happening in their changed lives.

When we’d all had a turn, my internal facilitator said to me, That’s it, we’re done.

“Okay,” I said, “We’re almost at 6:00.” Whoa, that’s random. An hour?  Do I get to say that this lasts an hour and then it’s done? But how long did people want to sit in front of their screens?  And what would happen if it did continue?  We’d be right back to the same unstructured chaos. Heart in my mouth, I forged on. “Does anyone have anything that needs to be addressed before we sign off?”

My niece who lives in Vancouver, somewhat isolated from immediate family, and who had been moved to tears during her check-in, said, “I’d like to do this again. Can we do this for Mother’s Day?”

After a second’s thought, I said, “Why don’t we do this once a week? Not a command performance – nobody has to come who doesn’t want to.  But I’ll be here in this room once a week, and whoever wants to show up can.”

People agreed, said goodbye, signed out.

And I went out to work in the garden in the evening light.  Where I had a meltdown.

 

A Note About Social Interaction

I’ve come to an understanding about the value of listening relatively late in life.

Human beings are tribal. Knowing that we belong in our chosen tribes (groups of family, friends, colleagues) is a key part of mental health and a contented life. One of the ways we feel valued and validated is when people listen to us – deeply listen – and when they respond appropriately to what we’ve just shared.

We are not taught how to listen in Western culture. Too often our listening amounts to just waiting till the speaker takes a breath so that we can have our turn to jump in and start talking.

I’ve been a writing workshop facilitator since the late ‘90s and an AWA facilitator for 18 years.  This practice has honed my listening skills.  And my work as a psychotherapist has also refined the way I listen to what someone says: I’m paying attention to the words, but also to emotional subtext and patterns of thought, speech and body language that might indicate what that person expects from the world.  The conversations that feel the most satisfying are less about talking and more about listening and reflecting back to the speaker what has been heard.

When I’m facilitating a workshop, we follow a clear structure for who talks when, for how long, and how people respond. The structure holds the space and makes sure that everyone feels deeply listened to. But that’s not usually the case in family conversations, especially at big events.

 

My heart was pounding.  I heard echoes of my mother’s accusations from my teen years (no doubt justified at that time of youthful self-obsession) reverberating in my ears.  “You’re just one person in this family!”  The message was clear: You don’t get to make the rules. You don’t get to bend the shape of family events to suit yourself.

Which I had just done.  Big time.

As I thrust the spade into the soil and shook the dirt off the tangled grass roots, I talked myself off that internal ledge.  If they hated it, or hate me for it, they just won’t show up at the next one. So be it.  I wasn’t willing to subject myself to the kind of Zoom gatherings that my partner was occasionally enduring with his family – rambling chatter, talking over each other, the narcissists dominating the conversation, others sitting there mute and helpless, slightly behind their spouses, hour after hour, everyone in a kind of social agony, hoping it would be over soon.  (I’ll just admit, this might be projection on my part.)

Sunday the following week arrived and I sent out the Zoom invite.  I waited on screen with my mom to see who would show up again. And then their little screens started showing up, one by one.  Almost the whole family came back. And so did some different family members who had missed it the week before.

As we were gathering one of my sisters made it a point to thank me for taking charge. She told me the story of an online bridal shower she’d been to that week where no one had facilitated.  “It took more than half an hour for everyone to work out their tech issues,” she said. “Then the shower went on forever. Everybody was talking over each other, no one could hear anyone else.  And when it was all over it dragged on for another half hour because no one knew how to say goodbye and leave.  Lots of people didn’t even know how to sign off!”

I relaxed a little.

We’ve followed this format every week since then. We’ve moved the time to later in the evening so that my niece in Japan can join us.

Each week I assign a topic.  The first couple of sessions, the topic was just “best and worst things from the last week.”  The next time it was “something you’re grateful for from the past week, and something surprising or different.”

For Mother’s Day, I asked people to come to the gathering with a memory of their mother and/or a story about something that their mother had taught them.  As we first assembled, I didn’t adopt the facilitator role for a while.  People were chatting, swapping small daily happenings from their nuclear family Mother’s Day celebrations.  My nephew showed us his baby rooster and one of the small chicks from the flock of 25 that got delivered this week.  Someone else showed her Mother’s Day bouquet.

After a few minutes of random chatter, my mother interrupted.  “Where’s our facilitator?”

“Right here!” I said, “Okay! This week I asked you to bring a memory of your mother or a story about something she taught you.”

And once again, we all went round and took turns.  There were funny stories, touching stories, a few tears; my aunt and my mother told stories about their mothers.  Spouses of my siblings told stories of their moms whom most of us didn’t know – we would have met them years ago at their wedding, if at all. My nieces and nephews told stories about my siblings.  And even though there were 17 people there, we wound up at 8:59 – just within the hour.

I expect that we will continue this until social distancing is over. Maybe even beyond. There have been other benefits besides just the chance to connect.  For instance, one of the third generation kids mentioned they were really struggling, and someone who was in a position to help reached out privately to do that. My nephew got to share the celebration  of his graduation with the entire clan.

I have seen more of my family all together in the past five weeks than I have in the past three years More importantly, I feel like I have had more meaningful interactions with each of them than would have happened if we’d been physically gathered together.

I do miss the hors d’ouvres though.