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FINDING NEW MEANINGS IN COMMUNITY, CONNECTIONS AND RITUALS.

Words: : Victoria Stoyanova

Victoria Stoyanova plays a special part in our world. Now Strategic Partnerships Manager at Facebook and founder of ‘hito labs’ (a company exploring the future of community systems), Victoria contributed her first piece for us in our 2016 with ‘Culture is Everything’ (an inclusion in our Journal release, Beginnings). We stayed closely connected with Victoria during her time as the curator of Creative Mornings London and have regularly welcomed her into our Emma Street eatery as a local coffee, brunch, birthday celebration and meeting spot.

As an insightful community builder, we invited Victoria to share her observations and thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 on finding new meanings in community, connections and rituals. Victoria’s latest project Institute of Belonging invites you to find much more on this topic and provides a new look on community, a space to experiment, connect and play.

IT’S WEEK FOUR. DAY 30 OF ISOLATION LIFE. WHILE I STILL DON’T KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS, I THINK I’VE FOUND A RESEMBLANCE OF RHYTHM.

These last few weeks have been weird. It all came in waves. One day I walked through Columbia Road reading every single shop sign (spoiler alert: they all read ‘Closed’). I felt angry, sad and annoyed all at the same time. How was this possible? What were people going to do? My heart ached for the local businesses – the pockets of humanity that shape our social fabric, our neighbourhoods, our everyday.

If habits define our lives, who do we become when our routines are stripped away from us so abruptly? The smiles that come with our morning coffee, the ‘good morning’ of the security guard in the office, the big, generous hug of a friend we see for lunch. These small interactions are what piece our days together. These small interactions, accumulated day after day are, well, who we are.

So, as many, I felt quite lost in the beginning. I baked many, many banana breads, cried my eyes out watching Nick Mulvey do an Insta live, marvelled at people playing old school jump rope games in the park. I joined ‘House Parties’, family Zoom calls and work bingo quizzes. I bought unnecessary exercise gear from Amazon and contemplated getting a dog (twice). I sobbed after my beautiful Stretch yoga classes for no particular reason and smiled at strangers, just because. I watched weird tiger stuff on Netflix, whole seasons at a time. I said ’I’m fine’ while not being too sure, but it’s England and we’re used to endure

Then, I read an HBR article that helped put words on a foggy feeling I had been carrying for weeks The discomfort you are feeling is grief, explains grief expert David Kessler. We grieve the past, the world as we know it, our ‘normal lives’ (that flat white and breezy cycle to work combo that was your morning routine). We also grieve the future, because we don’t know what it holds for us. This is what Kessler calls ‘anticipatory grief’. All of a sudden, I could see how the emotional roller coaster I had been through was not just something messy happening to me, it was actually a process. And a process has order. I like order.

Kessler explains that we go through different stages of grief – denial, anger, sadness, bargaining and finally, acceptance. ‘Acceptance!’ – I whispered out loud. That made a lot of sense to me. It was even the theme of my teacher Carl’s yoga class that morning. Acceptance is what we can do, it’s where our agency lies, our power. Acceptance in its Latin roots, means to take what is offered, without effort. It comes with the idea of receiving and carries a sense of abundance.

So, if grief comes in stages, if it has structure, then it’s much closer to a creative process. It’s like a hero’s journey or a story plot. Once we can name where we stand and once we can see the limits of the situation – we’re in, we can also see its potential. Theatre Director Anne Bogart – whom I adore – speaks beautifully about artistic limitations. She talks about the necessity of ‘adjusting to the realities of the situation and mining the potential of the limits with invention and energy’.

Once I stepped into that space with invention and energy, I found a feeling that I had missed: Joy. I started asking myself how I can bring joy to those around me. So, instead of sending my friends articles and GIFs, I posted a dozen of gratitude letters and postcards. Instead of doing small-talk (‘crazy times, right?’) with neighbours standing six feet apart, I left notes in their mailboxes and beer in front of their doors. Instead of being sad for my local businesses, I emailed to ask what support they needed and who I could connect them with. I spent lunch hours helping local charities come up with new community strategies. I asked real, generous questions and was met with real, generous answers. People, you see, are magic.

The strangely beautiful aspect of the collective heartbreak we are going through, is that it brings an opportunity to redefine how we engage with the world and with one another. There is an opportunity for new social contracts. There’s space for creativity. There’s even space for joy. Little by little, I feel alive again, I feel whole. By serving those around me, I see that I do have agency to make things better. This is how we enter a new phase of the grieving process, according to Kessler – meaning. We can all create meaning for each other: In every Zoom reunion, in every WhatsApp call, in every moment spent with partners, family or flatmates. Essentially, in every moment of connection.

But how do we create meaning in these interactions? So much of our lives happen though a little screen right now, that it’s easy to forget that it’s not something we’re used to. We’ve never really done (that many) virtual birthdays, meetings, happy hours, yoga classes and book launches before. We forget that there are no rules around how these are done, but we actually need rules because hosting twenty people in a living room or having twenty people in a Zoom call is entirely different to design and… to experience. So, whether you host or participate in that next call, remember you have the power to design what’s most conducive to connection. Maybe you invite everyone to show their favourite art piece, wear Glasto outfits, or show embarrassing (obviously) pictures of their teens. In your work calls, you can invite your colleague’s partners for ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions. The same goes for that virtual Hinge date – you can make up rules, like asking some of the famous ‘36 questions to fall in love’ (until it gets at least a little awkward).

Our lives at home are similarly impacted. Whether we live alone or with others, we’ve never spent so much time either by ourselves or in the company of loved ones. So naturally, there’s an opportunity to reinvent the rhythm and shape of our time spent together. For example, I follow two friends on Instagram who make ridiculously laborious meals every day and I love seeing their little ritual. Another friend goes on romantic cycling dates with her boyfriend. I listen to the new Brene Brown podcast every day on my walk in London Fields. My niece gives piano concerts on Sundays, at 2pm. Whatever brings you joy, do more of it. Claim your new routine. Even better, turn it into something that matters, turn it into a ritual.

Rituals are equally vital for communities right now. Perhaps you are running a small team, volunteering as part of a neighbourhood initiative or nurturing a community that usually meets offline. What does it really mean to connect right now? Where is the meaty part of meaning found? If you used to host events for freelance creatives, ask what these creatives need right now. Is it information?  Mentors? Is it doing a fun, distracting project? What you focus on will change the length, structure and tone of anything you organise. Ask yourself what feels essential for your tribe. This is what will be the most authentic, too, and authenticity is sticky, it’s social glue.

These last few days I’ve been walking down the streets of Hackney differently. I’ve been walking in long, slow strides, eyes peeled, dimples ready to fire smiles at anything beautiful I encounter. I’m a detective of joy. I picked flowers and vegan ice-cream for my friend Marta and left it at her doorstep. I picked a print from Dave Buonaguidi’s studio and stuck it onto my flat’s window ‘Keep yer chin up’ it says, in giant fluorescent letters. This brings me joy.

VICTORIA’S TOP RECOMMENDATIONS FOR READING AND LISTENING

Podcast:  Unlocking Us , Brene Brown
Podcast:  Together Apart , Priya Parker
Book: The Power of Ritual , Casper de Kuile
Book: The Serendipity Factor (pre-order) , Christian Busch