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24 March 2021

The creative act of relationship-ing

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I have not felt very creative this pandemic season. Not writing much, not coming up with new ideas or new frameworks. Blinking into the world, locked down in my London flat.

It wasn’t until a conversation with some lovely companions last week that I discovered one of the places my creativity had been active, quietly, with no fanfare: in the creative act of relationship-ing. Excuse my clumsy wording—even as an ex-English teacher, I want to use this made up term to exactly describe an action I have never noticed before: the act of creatively, thoughtfully, crafting, and nurturing relationships.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. My life Before was filled with relationships. I would have told you then I was thoughtful about giving them space, choosing which ones to invest in, which ones to prune. This year I have, of course, ached for the way relationships worked Before. For being together in a circle. For baking cookies to share with a friend over tea. For dancing (oh how I miss dancing). But in truth, the river of my life ran rapidly through these relational banks, and sometimes I did little more than wave at a dear friend as the current pulled me past.

This year, the river of my life stilled, the waters pooling. And, into that quiet space, as the movement of my life stopped, I have had to think about how to paddle my own boat from one bank to another, how to nurture relationships in a whole different way.

In our firm, we needed to find ways for us to deepen and extend our relationships even as our twice-yearly in-person gatherings stopped. We didn’t know at the beginning, but what we were needing to create were relational spaces that wove our community basket tightly, beyond our shared work or our common action. I wouldn’t have guessed that we’d need new ways of being together—after all, Cultivating Leadership has always been a virtual organisation. But over time we have discovered that relational capital accrues most quickly in open spaces when we speak from the heart and are witnessed by one another. The client team dinners before and after programs, the snatches of conversation while participants were in groups, the time in airport lounges—this had all once been natural, slack, extra spaces. All were erased by the pandemic.

Keith, who had a sense of what was missing before any of us got a chance to miss it, created a series of Zoom times that were mostly open space for people to gather, to check in, to be afraid and cry together some scary days. Over time, these meetings took a loose shape around particular topics, particularly what we were noticing as we moved to 100% on-line experiences:  celebrating our triumphs and successful experiments and holding each other in our disappointments and learning like crazy when our experiments stumbled. These monthly calls were the sort of random debrief that would have come up naturally in a taxi to the airport after a gig, but now we sat in Zoom squares and chatted in small groups as the timer counted down in the corner of the screen. As the tragedies of the year layered on, these “CL world calls” became spaces for us to grieve racial violence and injustice, to support our Lebanese colleagues, and to do some of the inclusion and belonging work to make our increasingly diverse organisation a space that holds us all. In our virtual retreats, brilliantly led by first Akasha and then Gayle alongside a team of their colleagues, we needed to learn how to stretch our limited hours together, to include emergent and quiet spaces that were restorative as well as the getting-things-done spaces where we were fast and efficient.

In my own home, I needed to find ways to recraft the relationships with my adult children who were under our roof for the first time as adults with their own partners. We began to create daily rituals that would ease us into healthy bodies and relationships—a long walk with Aidan, baking and exercising with Naomi. I have known that the needs of the parent/child relationship transform as the children grow, but under no other circumstances can I imagine the fine embroidering of our adult-adult relationships with such intention. The conversations about psychology, philosophy, love, longing, anxiety, and hope. The quiet afternoons together reading on the sofa. The family dinners, night after night around the same table. Without relationship-ing intentionally, I would have lurched into this next chapter of my parenting with my eyes focused somewhere else (the next flight, the next gig, the next suitcase packed).

And there were friendships that needed to be intentionally cultivated. My dear friend Michael has been a source of joy and connection in my life for more than 20 years, but never have we made so much time for each other. 90-minute Zoom calls each Saturday have stretched into places in our relationship—and in our psyches—we couldn’t have reached without such spacious and regular time. Mel and I walked at every possible opportunity when we were together in New Zealand, but the prospect of a year or more apart has made us intentional companions each weekend. I almost feel the wind on my face as we curl up with cups of tea in our living rooms on opposite sides of the world. And Shari has shown me that new friendships can weave tight and fast even in people who have never been in a room together; our Sunday calls are a portal into a new set of possibilities and perspectives. Before, I would have struggled to find time to grab a meal with these friends as I flew through their cities. I would have sent text messages lamenting long stretches without them. Now I notice each new haircut, hear about a particularly hard meeting or a particularly delicious breakfast. We intend our relationship into being.

This, then, has been my highest creative act of this odd time. There are many things I hope will change as we emerge from this time of Covid, but I deeply hope I can maintain this form of creativity. Beyond the sourdough bread and the project cakes, the act of relationship-ing might be the most nourishing creative act of all.

 PS The photo today is of Aidan, Lisa, and our project cake–Lisa’s favourite Russian cake, unavailable in London–which was much less an act of baking than an act of relationship-ing.

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