A few months ago I heard author and gatherer Priya Parker speak at the first annual Austin Facilitator Summit.
Priya covered several topics from her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters; I particularly fell in love with her insistence the first five percent and the last five percent of a gathering are perhaps the most important moments for those experiencing the occasion.
How do we begin and how do we end?
These are big questions: Into what world am I entering? What are my expectations? How will I feel? What will I experience that will shape my participation throughout the rest of this particular gathering?
And when it's over, what will have happened inside of me? What will I remember? Will I be compelled to think, feel or behave differently? Will what I once believe was important still be important to me?
How do we begin and how do we end?
My sweet cousin, Sebastian, passed away after a multi-visceral transplant a few months ago. He was seven.
To Sebastian, the world was awe-inspiring. Animals, trucks and TRAINS existed on this planet. Classical music and bubble baths and Christmas were available to be experienced. What wasn't there to be absolutely amazed by?
Sebastian ran places the way seven year old boys do. There's no use taking your time to get somewhere when everything is something you look forward to. Every person represents an opportunity to learn more about the world and share in the spectacle unfolding before us.
In the beginning of his life Sebastian could see with clarity what mattered most. He lived each moment with joy, even when he hurt. He was thrilled to be alive. He didn't make assumptions about other people. He didn't worry very much.
He was seven, hovering around the first five percent of living.
My Mimi, Pansee, is 85 and has recently gone into a memory care facility. Sometimes, it's not clear she remembers me specifically, she just assumes I'm one of the grandkids. I need to reintroduce my girlfriend to her each time we're together.
Mimi started losing track of time and forgetting where she was a year or so ago. She'd wander down the street and knock on someone's door. A doctor told her she couldn't drive anymore and that was tough. She certainly didn't want to be moved out of her home, but it wasn't safe for her to be there alone.
Her life wasn't easy - she lost her husband to a heart attack when my mother was six, raised four kids on her own and worked until her early 80's to pay the bills and still save enough to get us all Christmas presents and mail a check for $35 on our birthdays. She's a depression-era American who grew up fearing loss and doing without. She was a packrat and when we cleaned out her house we found magazines and mail and hotel shampoo bottles dating back to the mid-1900's.
Most of her life she held on tight to the idea the future was a scary place to be, and one better be prepared.
Now we get pictures and videos of her dancing, fishing, singing and carrying on with friends she's made in her new community. When I talk to her on the phone she laughs and giggles and tells me about her friends. She shares what she's excited about.
Now her grip is loose and her smile is wide. Every once in a while she’ll share about her old house and how she misses her neighborhood, but is quick to recall how great dinner was, or talk about Jeff down the hall (who we’re sure she has a crush on) or share how they’re going to the zoo next week.
She's 85, hovering around the last five percent of living.
When I hold Sebastian and Mimi in my mind, I can see with clarity the youthful innocence and earned wisdom woven together into an important truth about the human spirit most present when we enter and exit our lives.
When memories first begin to carve themselves into our psyche we possess an inexplicable wonder at just how amazing it is to experience our senses, to love someone, to imagine something, and to wake up after sleeping with a desire to get out into the world just in case we might miss something.
And as the sun gets low in the sky and we navigate the twilight of our lives some become nervous or angry, but the wisest among us drape a gown of gratitude over their shoulders. They realize no one was ever thinking about them and the stakes weren't nearly as high as they thought they were. The truth becomes easier to speak and, because time is short, there’s a return back to a state of being not unlike a seven year old - a state filled with wonder and awe at the very idea of breathing and talking and dancing and movies and the marriage of chocolate and peanut butter. What a thing.
Priya Parker tells us when we gather we must gather with intention. We must cherish the moments we have together, whether it be meetings or weddings or dinner parties or funerals. And she tells us the most powerful hashmarks on the timeline of any gathering - the moments when truth and purpose should be most clear - are the beginning and the end.
What are our lives if not a series of gatherings? Gatherings of minutes, days, weeks, years. Gatherings of memories. Gatherings of pieces of our identity. Gatherings of relationships. Or, if you will, one long gathering of breaths, which will one day come to an end.
Might we see clearly as we navigate the messy middle of our lives the truth and purpose so available to us in the first five percent and the last five percent of our time here on earth.
The stakes are high and there is great urgency to remember how unimportant most of the stakes are and how few matters are truly urgent in our brief living years. When we are lost, which we will inevitably be, might we recover the gift of wonder we once had as a child, and might we look to those who are old and wise, and see how they view the ending of things, which, I imagine is something like the closing lines of Mary Oliver's poem, When Death Comes -
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world