Friday, April 03, 2015

the post-gathering blues

I read this post by Robin recently and wished I'd had something like this 30yrs ago to explain why, if my weekend had been so wonderful, was I now in tears. Why, over the following few years, I'd come home from various events completely exhausted, emotionally and physically wrung out, completely unable to articulate why and desperate for the next gathering to come round. Why I couldn't find it in me to be pleased to be back home.

As the years have passed I've learned that those early experiences of Quaker gatherings were far from unique and whilst no there never will be quite the same combination of people together again, the same intensity, the same depth and the same connections can be found time after time after time. Some of the older and more seasoned participants were sharing wry smiles with each other at the outpourings of emotion at the end of the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005 as we all went our separate ways around the globe. Even then email and text meant keeping in touch with those far afield was an absolute doddle compared to the days when snail mail and expensive toll calls was all we had. And now with Facebook, Twitter etc it is even easier.

But no matter how much easier it to keep in touch with those you've shared the journey with (literally and metaphorically) the bit that doesn't seem to change is that time of 're-entry to reality', adjusting back to the everyday stuff that fills up the days between gatherings. Many a conversation has been had as to which is 'reality', that which we were usually in the process of leaving behind at the time on the long journey home, or that which we were heading to? Being part of a household with others going to the same things helps that transition, if nothing else they are as knackered as you are and they at least get the in jokes. But even if the home environment is full of fellow weary travellers, the outside world isn't. So you find yourself having to get used to not being able to just drop into deep and meaningful conversation with the person next to you even if you've never met them before; remembering that actually if you want to eat tonight you'd better think about cooking rather than just stand in a queue and be given a plateful; adjusting your conversation back into normal everyday language rather than a plethora of acronyms and 'Quaker speak' (jargon?); and not expecting everyone in sight to be wearing a name badge.

On the plus side there is your own bed, no (or a much shorter) queue for the loo and shower, and literally all the comforts of home. You know you should be glad to be home, to those who you've missed and have missed you, and most of you is, especially the sleep deprived and possibly also jet-lagged part of you. But no matter how many gatherings you go to there is always that window of readjustment from one set of routines to another, and no longer having the day's carefully timetabled programme on a piece of paper in your bag or pocket to refer to when in doubt as to what comes next. There are very few who readjust back without some size of a dose of the post-gathering blues. There are many different coping mechanisms, generally mine is to retreat from the world and try to process what I've just experienced within my head rather than by talking about it. I never seem to be able to find the words to explain why it was so *wonderful, deep, moving, exciting, energising, heartbreaking, etc etc etc (*delete as appropriate), which I acknowledge isn't easy on those who didn't go who are trying to get an idea of what I experienced.

Depending on the theme or purpose of the event 'real life' can seem incredibly trivial when you get back to it. It can be hard not to get judgmental about those who are getting wound up about the latest tv reality show when you've been hearing first hand experiences of genocide and incredible stories of survival and forgiveness. It can also be hard (especially when still a teenager/young adult), to convey how humbling and inspiring it is to meet such people, or those working in reconciliation work closer to home; or standing up for their beliefs to the point of being imprisoned for it; to meet people who appear on the news reels; to learn from some incredibly talented and wise folk and so on without it sounding like those who lead more everyday normal lives 'back home' are an inferior breed that you suppose you'll just have to put up with until your next exciting adventure... Sure you could go home and complain about the snorers in your dorm, the food, the weather, the uncomfortable and/or squeaky chairs/beds/floor, that your flight/train/bus was delayed, and there are those who do just that, and you get the impression that the thing biggest importance of the last few days was not having the right breakfast cereal and they'd had a thoroughly miserable time. The latter of which occasionally is true but generally such reports are simply another coping mechanism. It's far easier to complain about cultural differences and expectations than it is to describe a deep spiritual experience or feeling of inadequacy for the task you are feeling called to take on, and it is often much easier for the listener to understand.

It's reassuring in many ways to read posts like Robin's, someone who goes to such events for work as well as leisure, it is a reminder that such feelings are normal. I'd like to think that after 30yrs of gatherings I've got better at getting home afterwards, but I know it is something I still need to make more effort with and at least have a few coherent sentences on hand to describe my time away other than 'Yeah it was good. I'm off to get some sleep...'

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