They nuzzled against each other in sleep. Their snores stuttered like the beginning of a dirge, broken now and then by the grumbling of their empty stomachs. Sorochi watched their profiles in the light of the kerosene lantern. There were trails of tears crusted on their cheeks like scars. Somehow, the twins had resigned themselves to this: to cry as much as their limp strength could carry them, and then drift to sleep while locked in each other’s arm. As if to animate the drab atmosphere, the lantern flickered, casting floating shadows on the hole-ridden wall.
Sorochi leaned against Akudili’s broad chest. She could feel his strained breathing. The way his heart dragged up and down as though struggling to pump blood while holding back a torrent of sobs. His chin was grazing her frizzy hair. It stirred a million itches in her scalp. She clenched her teeth to keep from itching. It had been regular these days, the itching, her braid having been on her head for months, like an African president refusing to leave office. She scratched it only when Akudili was not watching, for she didn’t want him adding it to the truckload of his worries.
They’d been in this dark cloud of gloom since armed men robbed Akudili of the motorcycle he used for taxi business. The children now ate cooked food once every three days. Four months back, the police started mounting roadblocks on every major road in the city because of the lockdown — a radical decision from the Governor to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the state. Mobility was clipped; okada riders could no longer work. With the markets also locked down, there was nowhere Sorochi could ply her okirika trade. Even without the lockdown of markets, it was unlikely that anyone would buy imported used clothes at a time when everything coming from outside the border was suspected of housing the virus. The streets lay sprawled out for goats and fowls. Since Akudili could not work during the day, he worked in the night, carrying people and navigating the hidden corners of the town where the patrol would not apprehend him. By this means and with the occasional paltry stipends he got from tending the livestock in the parish house, he fed his family. Until last month. Hoodlums waylaid him. He woke up later by the bushy roadside, the side of his face caked in blood, his motorcycle gone. Unable to report to the police, (since they’d arrest him for violating the curfew), he dragged back home a deflated soul.
She turned to look at the expression on his face, to refill her draining hope with the optimism that never faded in his face. But his expression was blank like the sharp darkness outside. Her tongue lay in her mouth like a piece of flab. These days they said little. Sometimes fractured gestures and sighs were enough.
Akudili sat up, causing her to recline back in her seat. He said nothing but kept shaking his head. She pressed her hand around his. “Let’s go to bed,” she said. “It’s late.”
He snatched his hand away. As though to apologise for startling her, he lowered his voice and said, “I can’t just watch and do nothing. I’m a man, for Christ’s sake.”
“Obim, no one is saying you’re not a man. God knows you’re trying your best.”
“No. I have not tried my best.”
She collected her breath and adjusted on her seat so that she faced him squarely. There was the outline of the scar on his forehead, like an upturned question mark. Tears welled behind her eyes. She shut her eyes quickly. “We shall get through this. Trust God.” She opened her eyes to find him shaking his head again. Something about the way he now shook his head — not out of defiance but remorse — wrung her insides. It was as though he felt contrite for something he was yet to do.
“Let’s go to bed,” she repeated, now standing and dragging him by the hand.
Akudili was not in bed when she woke up the following day, strange for someone who almost always needed a bath of water to rouse him from sleep. Where could he have gone? And he never went to the parish this early. Dawn was spilling in through the gaps in the wooden window. It draped over the children like a transparent blanket. Outside, neighbours traded greetings and compliments. She entered the kitchen — a small space carved out from the sitting room by a wall of plywood. Rats scurried about in the corner. Akudili did not leave any money on the cupboard. They were supposed to cook today. Did he forget or what? She dug out her phone from the knotted end of her wrapper, but remembering she had no airtime, she slouched on the couch. How she wished the children could sleep a little longer; perhaps, drift into a coma until all this was over. The thought of seeing them writhe under the bite of hunger chafed at something delicate in her.
The children woke up later. In their eyes was a vacant look. The look of someone waking up to realize there was nothing to wake up to. She couldn’t stand it. She had to do something. Mama Caleb! How could she forget the woman in the next block? She’d moved her provision store to the house since the lockdown. But they were just neighbours whose daily conversations did not extend beyond the perfunctory exchanges. She’d often turn up her nose at the way the woman walked with erect shoulders and swinging hips, as if she owned the earth and all therein. God, let her be kind enough to sell to her on credit. Without as much as a glance to the children (who still sat on their mat staring about), she took a large nylon bag from the kitchen and left.
Minutes later she was knocking at the woman’s door. Who was knocking? the woman asked from inside.
“Mama Caleb, it is me, Sorochi, Mama Ejima.”
Approaching footsteps, the clatter of a metal lock, then the door squeaked opened to reveal the 5’4, freckle-faced Mama Caleb. She didn’t do much to conceal her surprised at seeing Sorochi at their door; it stretched her face so that her high cheekbones became prominent, her tiny lips pinched into a straight line.
“I want to buy garri,” she said nervously.
“Please,” Mama Caleb held the open door wider, “come in.”
The smell of slightly burnt fried plantain thickened the air in the sitting room. a sizzling of heated oil was coming from somewhere inside. She asked Sorochi to the seat. The couch was velvety as she sat and secretly stroked her palm on the armrest. The formica table reflected the light streaming in through the louvres. Papa Caleb stepped out from the corridor, little Caleb on his hip. Sorochi curtsied to him. He sat beside his wife. He said they were about to have breakfast could Sorochi join them. She smiled her thanks.
“Actually, I need some cups of garri,” she said. “I will pay once the lockdown is over.” As if to impress upon them, she added, “I just need to get something for the twins.”
The couple exchanged knowing glances. Mama Caleb took Sorochi’s bag and disappeared into the room. The woman came out later with a bagful. Sorochi felt something kick in her chest. She’d not remembered to tell them the amount of garri she could afford. She opened the bag and her mouth dropped: Two small bags of rice and garri, tins of tomatoes, a bottle of red oil, tiny containers of curry and thyme, and other things beyond her eyeshot.
“It’s for the twins,” the man said. “Don’t bother paying. It’s a hard time we’re in and the least we can do is to be there for one another.”
Sorochi dropped to her knees but the woman quickly held her up by the arms. “You don’t have to kneel before us, please, we’re not God,” she said. What Sorochi felt was not so much gratitude as regret for thinking ill of the couple.
Akudili returned late in the afternoon. The children were playing about in the sitting room. He stopped at the doorway, briefly taking in the glee in the hitherto drab house. In his hand was a two hundred naira loaf of bread in black nylon. The children paused in their play. Moving his hand from behind, Ugonna handed Ogechi her doll, their eyes trained on their father. He had once spanked Ugonna’s buttocks for playing with dolls. “Dolls are for girls, not for boys like you,” he told the little boy who couldn’t cry for fear he’d receive another spanking. The toy gun and brick house Akudili bought for him were always with Ijeoma. It worried Sorochi to no end, Ijeoma playing with toys meant for boys, for she feared her only daughter might turn out a tomboy.
Sorochi stood to welcome her husband. Her face twitched with a shivering smile.
“Daddy, we eat and eat plenty food. See … ” Ijeoma pulled up her shirt to display a belly so round and tight a kiss of a needle could puncture it.
“C’mon, pull down your clothes!” Sorochi slapped down her hand. “Don’t you know you’re a girl?”
Smiling, Akudili herded the children towards the front door. “Ngwa, you can play outside,” he said.
Sorochi could tell he was about to attend to a pressing matter. Ijeoma opened the door. Hand in hand the children shuffled out.
“How did the food come about?” he asked once the door was shut. Not waiting for her to answer, he tossed the bread to her and strode into the kitchen. She had left the foodstuff on the cupboard, hoping to show them to him when he returned. “Sorochi!” he shouted. She slouched to the kitchen. Her mind revved for an answer that wouldn’t scotch her husband’s pride.
“Where did you get these?”
She cracked her knuckles. “I bought them on credit from our neighbour. She agreed that I should pay after the lockdown is over.” She held her arm over her face to clock off any sudden swipe of his hand. It was true that he didn’t beat her that often, but sometimes his hands could do things on their own.
“And you didn’t think you should get my permission first?”
“I know but … the children were very hungry. You needed to be here to hear how they were crying down the roof. I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“The children were crying down the roof and the only thing you could come up with was how to disgrace me, okwa ya?”
“Mba-o!” Her hand flew to her mouth in shock.
“Please, don’t say that. You know I can’t do that. I was only trying to help — ”
“Thunder fire that your mouth.” He held a clenched fist in the air and swayed with rage, his upper incisors sank into his lower lip. He dashed out. He returned in the late evening when the children had slept. Sorochi eased herself next to him. She could perceive the odour of trapped sweat on his shirt. She admired this about him: he never struck her intentionally; instead, he’d take a long walk to burn out his anger. She perched a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want the neighbours to notice that the children were crying because of hunger.”
“I am not angry,” he turned to look at the children on the mat. “At least the children slept with food in their stomach. I just don’t like that you had to go to the woman. You know how you women can gossip. I would have gone to the man myself and discussed it man to man.”
“It won’t happen again,” stroking his arm. “So, should I bring your food?”
“Eat which food? Please, let me rest. I’m tired.”
It was 5:30 in the evening. Thirty minutes past the time Akudili usually returned from his work in the parish house. Sorochi’s eyes stayed outside until the sun dipped below the horizon and the fleeting colours of dusk began to fade away to usher in the night. She was gripped by pangs of premonition. The last time Akudili didn’t sleep in the house, he’d returned home in pieces. How could she contact him now when he left his phone on the couch? What would be her fate if something happened to him, a widow with four-year-old twins? God forbid! She shook off the thought. When next she peered outside, the darkness stuck to her face like a thick paste.
Floating between sleep and wakefulness she heard a clicking sound from the door. The lantern was off. She scrubbed at her itchy eyes and squinted her way to the door, hands stretched out before her. “Who is there?” Her voice came out like a crackle in the disquieting silence.
“Open the door, osiso.”
She could not mistake the gruff voice. She reached the door and, groping, unlatched it. He walked in. She threw her arms around his neck and held tightly. She noticed things were weighing down his shoulders. Feeling her way down his arm, she touched two bags in his hands. She smothered the urge to ask him what he was carrying. He seemed tired and the last thing he needed was a nosey wife. He freed himself from her. She heard the door lock. “I don’t know why of all nights it’s this night the police know to patrol our area,” he said, walking into the kitchen. Double thuds of heavy sacks on the floor.
“I thought something bad had happened to you,” she said when he came out.
“I’m fine.” He held her waist and guided her into the bedroom. She let out a short gasp when he yanked off her wrapper. He rested her in the bed like chinaware. He began feeling her up, rapidly, as though starved of her body. His hands, lips, the thing between his legs, ambled through every part of her body — the hills and wells, the plains and gullies, the soft and hard, the wet and dry. What a feeling! Since the robbery incident. She sprawled herself under him and encouraged him with a slightly exaggerated moaning. No sooner did he start to thrust than he dropped on her. Then he slowly heeled over to the other side. She was still horny and wanting more. But Akudili was already snoring. She stuck her fingers between her legs and searched for pleasure where they crammed in abundance.
In the morning she saw what he had brought the night before: two bagfuls of foodstuff, enough to last them for days if not weeks. That day they ate to their fill. Mirth reared up from where it’d been relegated.
Every weekend Akudili continued bringing foodstuff to the house, always late in the night. The late nights frightened Sorochi, but she worried greatly about the source of the foodstuff. She couldn’t find a way to ask Akudili about it without scraping at his temper. So she decided to keep quiet for the meantime.
Things seemed OK in the house. The children did not have to double over in hunger before she could get something to eat. Akudili no longer had a fit. But the beast of suspicion kept growing ever so slowly within her. She knew of only one place her husband could be getting the foodstuff: the pantry in the parish house. He had once complained to her about how the parish priest hoarded foodstuff in the pantry until they spoiled and were thrown away. “He doesn’t even care to share with those working for him,” he said. She tried to explain to him why the priest could not share the foodstuff with ordinary people like them. They were sacred — things sacrificed to God. Only the priests could eat from them. It’s there in Leviticus 22:14: “If anyone eats a sacred offering by mistake he must make restitution to the priest,” she quoted.
Could this be what Akudili was doing, stealing from God? God please, he’s a desperate man. Forgive him. He didn’t know what he’s doing. She feared his punishment would be severe, for he wasn’t just taking them mistakenly; he was stealing them. Confronting him with this would only dust out troubles from where they nested. But she couldn’t just lie about like a python after a heavy swallow, doing nothing.
She had to see the parish priest.
The church had the look of an emerging forest. Grass sprouted from every crack in the walls. Dust covered the paved footpath. Sorochi saw the priest ambling down the path to the sacristy. Twenty-six years a priest, the priest had not lost any vigour of his youthfulness; he walked with the deliberateness of one who knew the importance of each step he took and was bent on giving his best to it. She approached him. He stopped when he sighted her. “Madam Akudili,” he called. The corners of his mouth slid upwards as his eyes sparkled.
She curtsied and stood a mile away from him. Though she didn’t believe the priest had the coronavirus, she feared the priest might not want her to get any closer.
“You’re already missing your husband,” he joked.
She shook her head and said she actually came to see him, the priest. His face collected into seriousness. Hope there was no problem? he asked.
“It’s about my husband … ”
The priest gestured for them to walk. As they started down the path, still keeping a safe distance, she narrated her story, how her husband had been returning home in the middle of the night with bags of foodstuff. “It has been happening for almost a month now and he has refused to tell me anything about the source of the foodstuff.” She paused, and then added rather subserviently, “I was wondering if you know about it so I can at least thank you.”
The priest’s face was scrunched up as though in deep thinking. Hands in his cassock pocket. For a while, they walked in silence. He broke then when they got to the front porch of the parish house.
“You’re a good woman,” he said, steering his gaze to her. “So very few women would do what you’re here to do.” He asked her into the house.
The harsh smell of air freshener rushed into her nostrils as she stepped into the sitting room. She pinched her nose to keep from sneezing, which would raise suspicion in the priest’s mind, what with corona and its many symptoms. The two rotating ceiling fan held two large globes in their belly. They were giving out a bright white light that bounced off the glittering furniture in the room. Elegance shimmered in every corner. On another occasion, she would reach out to check whether the bouquet in the vase on the centre table was live flowers. The priest asked her to a seat.
“Chioma,” he called. A teenage girl popped out from the back door wearing an apron. “I have warned you severally not to enter here wearing that apron,” the priest said.
“Sorry, Father,” the girl mumbled, bending slightly on her knees.
“Tell Mr Akudili that I want to see him here — ”
The girl turned on her heel.
“Come here, I’m not done,” the priest shouted. “Is the catechist still in her office?”
“My friend, stop nodding like a lizard and answer the way a human being should.”
“Yes, Father, the catechist is in the office.”
“Good. Now, tell the seminarian to call her. Let both of them come here at once, you too … and keep that apron in the kitchen.”
His voice had turned gruff. Why was he calling everybody? She thought it would be something between the two of them. Regardless, she tried to wear a casual front. They soon walked in. The catechist and the seminarian, the girl and Akudili. Sorochi hugged herself. You’ve come to disgrace your husband finally, a voice echoed in her head. She tried to shush the voice: she had to do this lest her husband should bring a permanent curse on the family. It was obvious the priest didn’t know about the foodstuff. Meaning Akudili must have been stealing them. She — and only she — had to stop him, to save the family from an imminent curse — with the hope that the curse had not already been released.
“Sorochi … ” Akudili stopped himself, as though suddenly sensing something ominous in the air. Sorochi could hear his uneasiness screaming out to her, asking what she was doing there. But she concentrated on picking out dirt from under her fingernails.
“Sit down” was the only thing the priest said when they greeted him in unison. He turned to Sorochi: “Please, Madam Akudili, could you repeat to the hearing of everyone what you just told me some minutes ago?”
From the corner of her eyes, Sorochi saw Akudili wiggle so that he was sitting on the edge of the seat. She repeated what she told the priest.
“Mr Akudili, is your wife telling the truth?” the priest asked.
“F-father,” Akudili’s voice quivered, “I sometimes return home with foodstuff. But they are — ”
“One at a time,” the priest held up a hand. “Pardon my curiosity, but where did you get the foodstuff from?”
“To say the truth, Father,” he cleared his throat, “I got them from the parish storeroom. But before God and man, I took only the ones about to spoil.”
The priest’s eyes swept through their faces, taking in their surprise as the realization dawned on them. The teenage girl’s hand flew to her mouth. The priest stood. Akudili pulled back into his seat. His chin dropped to his chest like a chastised child.
“Did you hear yourself?” the priest said. “So, you’re telling us that your family has become a dumping ground for” — he made a quotation sign with his forefingers — “‘about-to-spoil’ foodstuff, eh?”
Sorochi’s bladder got heavy. Hot air flooded her chest. Akudili took a glance at the priest. Deep furrows spread across his face. The sight of him sent prickles to Sorochi’s skin. She couldn’t have come here. Better that they had quarrelled and fought in the privacy of their bedroom than this public disgrace.
“I am asking you a question, Mr Akudili.” The priest sat down with such calmness that frightened Sorochi the more; it was as though he’d concluded on a fitting punishment for Akudili. “What you did was stealing, and I’m sure the vigilante will be happy to handle your case.”
There was a collective gasp from those seated. Sorochi fell to her knees. “Please, Father! Have mercy,” Turned to others in the room, “Please help me beg father. It is condition-o.” Her arms splayed.
“Condition, you say?” the priest asked. “You think your husband is the only one with conditions? Every one of us here,” pointing at those seated, “has conditions.” He stood, dug out his phone from his pocket and began swiping over the screen.
Sorochi grabbed the priest by the helm of his cassock, causing him to stumble. She was screaming, “Father, please! For the sake of our little children … ” Sob mounted in her throat, her wild emotions clashing like a flood. The catechist and the girl started pleading to the priest. The seminarian knelt down but said nothing. Sorochi held on to the priest, despite his failed effort to kick her off like a whimpering puppy. Seeing everyone now joined in pleading on their behalf, she couldn’t help the sob that shook her chest that had her gulping for air.
“That’s enough,” the priest shouted. He managed to snatch his cassock from Sorochi. “I have never treated any of you badly to warrant one of you stealing from me.” His eyes were trained on Akudili, who was now sitting on the floor. “Why didn’t you come to ask me? You should have told me that your family is starving. I know I can be harsh but I am not a heartless beast that if you told me about such a problem I wouldn’t help.”
Sorochi sensed a slight shiver in his voice. His eyes misted. His forehead was covered with sweat. Meanwhile, Akudili held his face in his palms. He was obviously hemming in a tremor. But the tremor moved up his body, and his shoulders rocked.
His face kept away from them, the priest made his way out the sitting room. At the door, he said to the girl, “Make sure to lock the door when they leave.” Soon, Sorochi heard a door bang inside.
It was over. She had shattered with her own hand what she was trying to save. The only thing between her and Akudili was an end with rough edges. How could God let things go this way? To whom would she go to, in this lockdown?
From behind a hand rest on her right shoulder. Another hand shoved under her armpit. They pulled her to her feet. She knew the hands. But the weight of guilt held her face down; she could not look at the face of the one who owned the hands.
Featured image: dariodraws on Shutterstock
Her father died in the early days of shelter-in-place, stranding the two of them in his house within the Minneapolis neighborhood where she grew up. He left behind two cats and a boisterous fifty-pound rescue dog named Dinky, all very much alive and missing the man who fed them too much while asking nothing in return.
Except for houseplants that would die with or without her presence, not a whole lot waited back in Maine, the place she called home. One more divorced, unemployed marketing director wouldn’t be missed. Even in regular times there weren’t a lot of jobs like the one that had left the state as part of a business acquisition. During a pandemic, when the economy rocked like a small craft in the Gulf of Maine caught as weather fronts changed, jobs were collateral. Portland was a rough place to seek refuge.
So Belinda, formerly known as Beauty to her family and close friends, used meditation, white wine, and occasional sleeping aids to temporarily nest in her father’s house. Always a clean guy, the intensity of his second battle with leukemia lingered in a slightly offensive blend of illness, strong cleaners and pet odors. During the ten days she kept watch by his side, the smells faded under the immensity of watching the man she loved for her whole life die. In the two weeks since he passed, she kept windows open by day, bought fresh clothes, and littered the house with air fresheners.
His ashes waited in the trunk of his favorite 2008 BMW 325i for the right time when she could drive north and spread the remains in a field where he hunted turkey with friends. A pair of someone’s old hiking boots, a knife to cut tape on the box, a camp chair and the fleece throw from his bed would keep his ashes secure. When the weather was right, she’d pack a lunch, free him on the empty field and keep watch for a time to be sure all was okay.
Nine years earlier, during the days before her mother’s funeral, Belinda observed a web of numbness settle over her father. A son of the Iron Range, his normal emotions ran from quietly happy to bravely stoic. Witnessing the rawness of his grief not even six months later at the side of her brother’s broken body seared her tear ducts, made the act of crying too painful. He did not deserve to suffer the losses of the two they loved so much. She was a minimal substitute for what he had known as father and husband, but they found a way to be good to each other. His hugs felt like home even in the week before he passed. He laughed at her jokes, was thankful for the fruit juice ice pops she made, let her hold his thin hand for hours. At the end he told her not to cry, as if losing him was no more eventful than scraping a knee, moving across the country, or ending a marriage.
All decisions and responsibilities were now hers alone. The brief will of Deck Blake had only two directives: a generous gift to the animal shelter and transporting a drop leaf table to a friend of her mother who lived across the river. Shelter-in-place meant she literally lived amid his stuff with no opportunity to draw down the bags with trips to Goodwill. Yesterday’s hard decision, discussed with Dinky, was to contact a junk collector to carry the first piles away. Her father would have been upset if he knew that his recliner, his mattresses, the drapes and old tools in the garage had been downgraded to junk. There were no other choices.
She thought about adding the dozen boxes, child’s rocking chair and ugly metal sculpture in the basement that had remained untouched 12 years after she and Aaron moved to Maine. Her then-husband’s promotion, a beautiful old house near downtown and the crashing Atlantic promised new beginnings for a tired young marriage. College sweethearts, they had become best friends, then merely pals by the time they turned 30. Watching her parents, she knew there wasn’t enough passion left to start a family or grow old together. She got the house, he found a new spouse. There was no blame, but she carried the failure forward.
In Minnesota, routines developed in the absence of human contact. Each day after opening the windows, Belinda fed the animals, cleaned the litter boxes, snapped a harness on Dinky and battled with him about direction, speed, unnecessary pee stops on a two-mile route. Back at the house she ate her toast, cereal and diet cola breakfast on the three season porch where spring sunshine barely warmed cool air. Then she headed inside to the dining room table to execute her father’s estate.
His trust allowed Belinda the choice of a few years of financial independence, or a nest egg to build retirement savings. Her Maine unemployment benefits ended soon and money banked from selling her house there might stretch through year’s end. The tiny, freezing, studio above a family’s garage was about the cheapest Portland rental place available. She’d held off grabbing a retail job, but even if she had, the pandemic would have taken it away.
Dread of losing the ocean, the forests, her deep friendships hung as heavy on her mind as the scent of death lingered in her senses. This city of her family was where she grew up, went to college, got married. Walking along the riverbanks she felt air pollution and high density housing weakening the emotional well-being nurtured by connection to the Pine Tree State and its rocky coasts. Minnesota organic blueberries were subpar to Maine’s crop.
Dinky and the cats rushed past her as she opened her father’s bedroom door. While not of any religious following, she had honored his passing with a mixture of Shiva and other grieving traditions. For two weeks she had not touched this door, hoping his spirit would travel to a place of peace. No funeral, no memorial service, the barebones notice he allowed to be printed among the COVID-19-jammed obits kept her unsettled, as if the solemnity of his passing had been debased. A good man deserved a good send-off.
Stripped, the mattress showed its age. She spread a tarp over it, then brought in boxes and bags to pack the first load of her father’s things. Room darkening drapes came down first to give the sun a chance to pierce her sadness. The windows she had washed on her first day with him still sparkled. A cat jumped to the sill, eyes turned toward the yard.
Dinky stayed by her side. The other cat perched on top of the bed headboard watching everything from Belinda’s movements to dust motes. Beginning in the small bathroom, she carried medical equipment, a scale and portable storage rack to the mattress. Linens she divided into cleaning materials and pet towels. Medications filled two grocery store bags that she placed in the shower stall. She left his hair brush and razor in the drawer. Everything else was thrown away.
While she worked, she talked out loud to the animals. She could stay here until summer, find them homes, sell everything, and return to Maine. Maintaining Maine rent and utilities would swallow thousands of dollars. Pragmatically she spoke out loud about the price of closing down life in New England. Free housing with a marketplace that had history of recovering from deep economic downturns. She could revitalize her father’s vegetable garden, keep his pets, treat renovating the house as work. He hadn’t asked her to make his house or memory her future, but she needed purpose.
Dinky broke her concentration as dogs are likely to do. Rounding up the cats, she once again closed the door. Watching from the patio while Dinky explored his domain, Belinda drew out her phone and pressed a favorites name.
“Hey, Beauty, how are you doing? Coming home soon?”
“That’s what I’m calling about, Aaron. This is a huge favor, but I wonder if I could ask you and Jacie to close up my place and send everything here. Not the stuff in storage, just the apartment. I’ll find a mover and make all the calls. I know Jacie sometimes rattles you, but she’ll know what I need and what to throw.”
“This is quite a jump. Maine is where your friends are. We aren’t married anymore, but we’re still friends. That’s why you called me. I know you’ll find another job here when everything settles down. You said you could never be landbound again.”
“People say a lot of things before something hits them in the face. I’ve thought it through and this is what I’m going to do. Nothing’s permanent. Are you willing or does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Think about it overnight and call me back. Don’t be hasty, Beauty. But if this is what you gotta do, I’ll help out. We’re friends, Beauty, and don’t forget it. No need to bother Jacie. Annie and I can pack the place.”
“Jacie has a key and would be pissed if I didn’t ask her. You can be in the same room for a few hours. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“You want me to drive your car out and drag a trailer with your stuff. I can help you get settled. That house needs some updating. I’d like to visit the cemetery and pay respects.”
“No nonessential travel. Remember there’s a virus out there. I don’t need a dead ex. Let the professionals take the risks. Jacie’s brother has been interested in the car. I was waiting for the weather to change so I could get around on the scooter.” She sat on the wood Adirondack chair her father had built. “I’ve got Dad’s dog and cats for company. There’s some relatives near and he emailed friends to look in on me. So I find groceries I didn’t order on the front porch and neighbors waving when I’m outside. One’s coming to the fence now. Talk later.” She was still a lousy liar. Took after her dad that way.
Dialing Jacie, Belinda let Dinky lead the way back in. She closed the door, then the inside door which she locked.
“I’m staying here, friend,” she said before Jacie spoke. “There’s no ocean and more fields than forests, but Dad’s trust means there are four walls that are mine and more money than I ever had in the bank. I’ll be able to find a job when it’s all clear. One that pays enough for a decent living. Freezing in 500 square-feet above someone’s garage and settling for a seasonal retail job are too much to pay to eat lobster rolls with my friends. I love my friends in Portland, but there’s no special person, no stable housing, no job, no prospects. I’m scared of what’s going to be left when the virus is under control. ”
“I was waiting for this call. This is why the lifers don’t invest in relationships with folks like us.”
“You sound like a Maineiac, friend.”
“I’ve only lived here since high school. Became a nurse so I could make a living. Married a local.” Her voice quieted, “I can hear your heart breaking. I’m gonna miss you, Beauty. And I won’t be the only one. Give me the details. I’m hoping you aren’t planning to come back and pack your place.”
“I’m hoping you and Aaron might take care of the packing. Just the studio. I’ll hold off on the storage unit until it is safe to travel.”
“Is your dad’s place getting better? You’ve been uncomfortable there since he passed.”
Belinda looked around the kitchen her father remodeled in 2000. She’d replace a few appliances, paint, replace some cabinet doors with glass, swap out the pulls and knobs, remove the blinds. Maybe soon. Knock down walls later.
“It’s growing on me. I started pulling down curtains and cleaning out a room. This is going to be my job for a few months. You know me, I’ve got to have a reason to get up each day. No telling what’s going to happen in the world, but it feels damn fine to outright own the place where I sleep and have enough money to eat more than eggs and toast. Makes the starting over easier.”
“Amen.” Jacie cleared her throat. “Now tell me what you need me to do.”
“First I need you to stay healthy, Jacie. I can’t watch the news without thinking of you pulling down doubles.”
“We’re all doing our best, friend. You, me, everyone.”
Featured image: yuRomanovich / Shutterstock
Gatherings around the world are cancelled or postponed: Concerts, conferences, religious services, birthday parties, yoga classes, the Olympics, funerals. Almost all instances of people in proximity to one another have suddenly evaporated in the U.S. as many of us have been isolating in our homes.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has altered daily life for most everyone, Priya Parker thinks it has created an opportunity for us to reexamine the ways we connect with one another.
Parker is a trained conflict resolution facilitator who started using a process called “sustained dialogue” at University of Virginia to facilitate meaningful conversations and connections across racial and ethnic barriers. As a biracial woman, she noticed a lack of understanding around race on campus, and she decided to do something about it.
In 2018, Parker published The Art of Gathering, a book that calls on us to reconsider the gatherings we plan and attend, from celebrations to meetings to mass events to dinner parties. Parker’s book offers a new way of determining how we should shape these gatherings into meaningful experiences instead of routine events. She writes that “We spend our lives gathering … and we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another.” Parker believes that we can change this, though, even — and maybe especially — in a time of global crisis.
In our interview with her, Parker shared her philosophy of getting people together, socially distanced or otherwise.
SEP: You talk in your book about our “ritualized gatherings” and how they’ve been repeated so much over time that we’re attached to the forms of our gatherings even after they no longer reflect our values. What are we doing wrong when we gather?
Priya Parker: We skip over asking what the purpose is. So, we skip too quickly to form. If we’re hosting a baby shower, we assume it has to look a certain way and skip to buying or making the baby games. I wrote about the New York Times “Page One Meeting” in the book, which continued for more than 70 years even after it no longer made sense to have the biggest meeting of the day focusing on what goes on page one, since they now had this thing called the home page. Whether it’s a baby shower or an editor’s meeting, the biggest mistake that we make when we gather is to assume that the purpose is obvious.
SEP: To zero in on the purpose of gatherings, you suggest finding a “disputable purpose” and even excluding people if necessary, in the right way. A lot of us are rule-averse and want to at least appear laid back when we’re planning gatherings, so how do you think we can start to embrace rules like this?
Parker: I would differentiate between principles and rules. I think something like “know why you’re gathering” isn’t a rule; it’s a principle. It’s not controlling or uptight to be asking “why are we doing this?” It’s intentional.
But I do, in the book, write about pop-up rules. Something like practicing generous authority. Something we tend to do in our gatherings is “underhost.” In wanting to not seem too controlling or bossy, we kind of do nothing. This is an argument to say that if you’re interested in creating transformative, memorable gatherings, the way to do that is to have a specific purpose and to create a sequence or structure — that can actually be delightful and fun.
If the purpose of a baby shower is to help a couple figure out how they want to parent when they’ve never seen a model for that in either of their families before, having a baby shower with all women and pinning the diaper on the baby is not going to help you fulfill that purpose. Gathering is a form of power and it’s also the way we spend our time. I’m not so much an advocate of rules so much as I am an advocate of not wasting people’s time.
SEP: Let’s say you’re at a terrible gathering. You know it’s terrible, and everyone else does too, but you’re not the host. Is there anything you can do as a non-host to make a gathering better?
Parker: I called this book The Art of Gathering and not The Art of Hosting, in part, because I think guests have a lot of power. I know of this retirement party that happened pre-COVID, and the team of a department was invited to a retirement lunch, and everybody came and sat down and they were chatting. The person who sent out the invitations was planning to bring out a cake and a plaque at the end, but there were like two hours before that, so everyone was just kind of waiting around while nothing happened and it was a little embarrassing for the person being honored. Then, one of the guests stood up and clinked their glass and started a round of toasts and stories. It was a risk, right? But people went along with it. It gave structure, and completely transformed the event. Through their intervention, that guest transformed something that was mundane into something that was meaningful.
Sometimes it isn’t obvious who the host is, like if you’re at a conference or something and you’ve spontaneously come together with whoever you’ve bumped into. You can intervene and say, “I’m here because I’m new to the industry. Would you guys be up for a conversation?” and go around answering an interesting question. You have a lot of power as a guest to shape an outcome. Part of it is saying “there is a beautiful conversation that could happen here. How do we have it?”
SEP: I think it’s a little more common these days to come across the idea of introvertedness or social anxiety, and some people say they don’t like to be in gatherings or that they don’t like to be around strangers. But you say in your book that “everyone has the ability to gather well.” Does that run counter to the idea of introvertedness?
Parker: One of the things I found interesting writing this was that I interviewed over 100 people for this book who people described as transformative gatherers — in all different fields, a rabbi, a choir conductor, a hockey coach, a photographer — and many of them identified as introverts or sufferers of social anxiety. One of the things I found, at least anecdotally, is that often introverts — people who don’t like to go to gatherings — are some of the best gatherers. This is because they’re creating the gatherings they wish existed.
When you’re designing experiences for other people, I think it’s almost dangerous to rely on a very charismatic personality to lift the group and carry it through something. When you create thoughtful structure, you don’t actually have to do very much once people arrive. I actually think that often when people don’t like going to gatherings, they’re on to something. They don’t like them when they’re really awkward and they aren’t guided with care. They don’t like gatherings where you have to keep introducing yourself or try to prove your worth. It’s exhausting. But there is another way to do this, and, in my experience, introverts and others who are on the outside of communities are really amazing, thoughtful gatherers.
SEP: When it comes to family and friends with really polarizing politics (I think everyone thinks about this around Thanksgiving for some reason), a lot of strategies go around for gathering people like this and keeping conflict at bay. How would you approach gathering people where politics differ and maybe even values differ as well?
Parker: I think first, again, is know the purpose. Is the purpose to engage in politics? Or to have a good time? If you’re trying to interstitch a community and they’re divided on politics, as a conflict resolution facilitator, one of the things you know is that there are different tools for different conflicts. It may make sense to avoid conversation as a centerpiece of your gathering. It may make sense to do it in a sports league or volunteer together. There are a lot of ways to build relationships, and things that allow people to see different sides of each other are going to help to build that community.
When you’re bringing together people who are different, don’t try to make them the same; try to complicate each side. Krista Tippett said “We assume a monolith of the other that we know not to be true of our own side.” So we think “all evangelical Christians … ” or “all white women …” or “all Muslims … ” whereas we know that there’s so much difference even within our own families.
If you’re going to go for it, my suggestion is to ground a conversation around stories, not opinions. Or, don’t focus on conversation and find a meaningful activity that allows people to show different sides of themselves. People could think, oh wow, he is just as competitive as I am, or, she’s also superstitious. We all have different sides to ourselves, so part of loosening that knot isn’t to focus on stamping out the differences but to bring out the complications of each side because they have something in common.
SEP: I find it ironic that you’re book about gathering has just come out in paperback while we’re all social distancing.
Parker: It is an ironic time to deeply understand gatherings when the world is ungathering.
SEP: But you do have this podcast called Together Apart, so I want to know some innovative or inspirational ways you’ve seen people connecting during this pandemic.
Parker: People are finding really beautiful ways to gather even with social distancing. In this week’s episode, which was on birthdays, an aunt and her nephew organized a birthday party in a parking lot for all of the neighbors and asked them to park their cars in a circle and blare pop music and honk as the birthday boy was going to drive through. It was totally amazing to have a release of joy when people are cooped up in their houses, but in a safe way. One interesting thing I’ve been getting a lot of notes on is people living in neighborhoods all over the country who don’t know their neighbors, and all of the sudden, Facebook neighbor groups are popping up saying, “drinks on the lawn, 12 feet apart, 5 p.m.”
One powerful thing we’ve been seeing online is people whose gathering is unique to this time and wouldn’t make much sense in other times. D-Nice, this D.J. in Miami, started spinning sets three weeks ago, and some of his dance parties are 100,000 people. Michelle Obama stopped by, Bernie Sanders, Mark Zuckerberg stopped by, but it was literally open to everybody. It was a strange combination, that I think is difficult in in-person gatherings, of elite and deeply democratic while allowing these psychological V.I.P.s through the door. It reminded me of a quote from Studio 54 when Andy Warhol was criticized for the red rope, and he said “It’s a dictatorship at the door so that it can be a democracy on the dancefloor.” I think D-Nice is this fascinating example of being a democracy at the door and a democracy on the dancefloor.
There are virtual choirs, collective spin classes and knitting classes, Alcoholics Anonymous, happy hours, and everything in between. And I think families are trying to figure out how we can be together apart in a way that’s safe but still specifically marks a moment in our lives.
SEP: Do you think this is a good time to reconnect with old friends?
Parker: Absolutely. This is a massive, generational, global interruption, and it’s a painful one. It makes us pause and think, who do I love? What have I not been doing when I was overbusy? Beyond the question of reconnecting with old friends, it’s really a good time to reconnect with how you want to live. Part of that is who you want to be part of that life.
SEP: What do you hope people take away from your book?
Parker: My deepest hope is that people pause, at work or home or in the public square, and think more intentionally about how we do things together, and then have the courage and the permission to go invent that new way of being.
Featured image: Shutterstock