All I want for Christmas is ‘generous authority’
Why Priya Parker’s ‘The Art of Gathering’ is the best book I read in 2022.
What does it mean to gather? I thought a lot about that this year, thanks to Priya Parker’s 2018 book, “The Art of Gathering,” that was one of those books I couldn’t stop talking about this year.
Parker is a facilitator who gets hired to bring people together. Her book came out before the pandemic, but it, ironically, generated even more attention when the pandemic hit and we couldn’t gather in person. Within a week, millions of people around the world had a new appreciation for what it meant to “be together.”
Virtual weddings and funerals on Zoom. First dates and last words, via Facetime. Birthday parties, work happy hours and trivia night, on a screen.
Within a few weeks, Parker was hosting a New York Times podcast called “Together Apart” to help us navigate this new world.
We aren’t so apart these days. Thankfully.
But we have all had to reckon with what it means to be a host, a guest, a frustrated employee who wonders why the weekly team meetings are so insufferable.
This is why Parker’s wisdom went viral. She helped us realize that gatherings aren’t just the big events; every time we meet up with a friend or organize a kids’ sleepover or sit down for dinner, we are gathering.
I picked up this book earlier this year for two reasons 1) I’ve always felt somewhat inept at hosting and 2) we’re hosting a wedding next year that was already starting to frazzle my nerves.
But as I’ve been soaking up all of her insights, I realized that what I’m learning is shaping my soul in ways that have nothing to do with the wedding. I’m learning new ways to think about what leadership looks like, how to claim my own power in a way that does not take it from anyone else and to develop a sense of what Parker called “generous authority.”
She writes: “A ubiquitous strain of twenty-first-century culture is infecting our gatherings: being chill. The desire to host while being noninvasive. … The hosts I guide often feel tempted to abdicate that power, and feel that by doing so they are letting their guests be free. But this abdication often fails their guests rather than serves them… In gatherings, once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, they want to be governed — gently, respectfully, and well. When you fail to govern, you may be elevating how you want them to perceive you over how you want the gathering to go for them. Often, chill is you caring about you masquerading as you caring about them.”
Every few pages, I have to put this book down and let her thoughts on things like thresholds, guest lists and pinpointing a “disputable purpose” soak into my bones.
Because if everyone’s invited, no one is invited. Gatherings aren’t for catching up. Etiquette isn’t equitable, but pop-up rules can create magic.
I’ve been using her insights all year long, however imperfectly, with my family and friends. My sister and I are stringing popcorn on Facetime. I’m sending birthday boxes of Tiff’s Treats organized via group text. I’m organizing tamaladas and not inviting everyone I know to stop by.
That could be the harshest guideline for someone like me, who just wants people to feel like they belong: Gatherings shouldn’t be for everyone. The Dinner in White events in Paris, which I thought I would have hated because of the uniformity and secret society-like rules, now makes sense. By asking people to dress in the same color, it creates an agreement between the host and the guest and an equalizing framework and a suspension of everyday norms.
Austin’s Free Lunch hosted its annual spaghetti plate fundraiser dinner The Big Red earlier this month, where participants are asked to wear all red. Before reading this book, I would have seen rules like that as silly and controlling, but now I can see that they are part of what makes gatherings different from meetings or family bonding time.
Parker encourages us to not only set an intention for the gathering, but determine its disputable purpose. Not a category — '“we are having a wedding” — but a deeper, more meaningful WHY, something that not everyone will appreciate or even understand.
She suggests a wedding that is a ceremonial repayment to one’s friends and family for all they’ve done is a very different event than one that is a festive melding of two people’s groups of friends and family. Having this “disputable purpose” helps you make decisions about the guest list, budget and overall plan for the day.
I have been thinking about this as it pertains even to this Substack — what is my disputable purpose in writing these stories? How might that honed-in perspective help me make decisions about what to publish or where to take the newsletter in the future? If I were to pull some of these stories and essays into a print book, which ones would I pick and why? Does “The Feminist Kitchen” help people understand that purpose?
For as much as we associate gatherings as get-togethers, I think there’s more than a small element of gathering from where I come from in the newspaper world. The idea that we all gathered around our newspapers each morning to start the day. That so many of you would “gather” with me around the food section, where I could use this sense of “generous authority” to create a threshold and strong opening and an engaging experience and a meaningful closure, all through the course of a column.
As we wrap up this year, I want to thank you for being part of this grand experiment in creativity, writing, publishing and personal expression for the collective good.
What books changed your life this year? What authors shared new ideas that you’ll be carrying with you into 2023? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
And before I sign off this week, I wanted to say Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all who celebrate!
I’m gearing up for several full days of tarot readings — people are booking small parties with me via AirBnB Experiences, which has been super fun this holiday season — and visits with friends and family.
A couple of heart-warming things to share before I go:
Dog Day Cafe, which is housed inside the Nosh and Bevvy Bar on Burnet, has a Wall of Thanks, where people buy drinks for veterans and active duty military.
Jenny Holzer’s new piece on the side of the Contemporary in downtown Austin is worth seeing in full size. Her work has always both provoked and inspired me.
TreeFolks had a tree adoption day last weekend at the H-E-B on Lamar and Rundberg. I got to see Andrew Smiley, who is the executive director (and one of the very first people I met in Austin when he was at the Sustainable Food Center), and Hector Gonzalez, a longtime food friend who does their social media and community engagement, and take home two trees that I hope don’t die in this upcoming freeze.
As we chatted, I asked them if they thought about their work as part of their future ancestor work. Absolutely, they said. Trees are long-term investments whose true yields we will never know.
What a gift to know that so many people find beyond-my-lifetime satisfaction in the work they do. That is truly the best gift I could ask for this year is a sense of connection with other people who look through the generational lens.
Thank you to everyone who makes this Substack possible! Your subscriptions pay for my time to write and manage this publication, and I am so grateful for every one of you.
Until next time,