When one of my daughters was about to turn five, we talked about her upcoming birthday party. “Your friends will come over. It’ll be a lot of fun,” I told her. She was quiet for a minute and then asked, quite seriously, “Who are my friends anyway?” She was asking, like our cover, “Who’s in my coven?”
Much in this issue of Lilith resonates with the experiences we’ve been missing, including the power of repeat encounters in groups, our covens. Same time next week, next month, next year. Yes, Shabbat and the weather and the shifting patterns of sunlight remind us of the calendar. But while the Earth still rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, for me the weeks have become a blur. Maybe for you too. It’s a Monday again? And while the calendar says July as I write this, where was June? We blinked, and it vanished.
It has been a year and a half without these periodic in-person gatherings, and they’re vital to our balance, our wellbeing, and especially to the way we relate to one another. Rhythms help us feel secure, like the mahjong groups you’ll meet in this issue in which the game is the glue that held together the players for their weekly conversations. Many of us have been working remotely, or living remotely, or both, for so long that we’ve forgotten how powerful in-person groups can be, not just for the pleasure of routine and reassuring human contact but also, importantly, for encounters with ideas that may differ a few degrees from our own.
These are some of the reasons I’m a faithful believer in our much-missed Lilith office lunches (as those who follow this page know), because face-to-face talk, in real time and in the flesh, doesn’t allow for the posturing that firmly left- or right-leaning online forums promote. I understand that some people are shy in groups, and do their best thinking when they formulate those thoughts in silence and solitude. And I recognize that groups have the potential to generate conformity as well as creativity; like many of us, I’ve occasionally allowed myself to be silenced by a group’s often unacknowledged hierarchies. Nevertheless, a salient factor of groups that meet regularly in person is that they can modulate our thinking, at least a little. When you’re sitting with people you mostly know and mostly trust, the back-and-forth over a challenging and potentially disputatious topic is a valuable pumice for filing down the sharp and dangerous edges of an argument.
The effect of in-person back-and-forth is utterly missing in the nastiness that bursts forth on social media, galloping along unrestrained when you’re distanced by pixels and don’t actually meet your interlocutor. Among the other opportunities confiscated by the pandemic’s constraints is the chance for regular, repeated gatherings that, like those mahjong groups, give us a chance to try out our opinions and the ways we express them to other actual human beings.
When we’re talking in real time—for example, in the 100+ lively Lilith salons that we look forward to resuming in person soon—change can be accelerated when women activate the power of groups. Mostly this power activates positive change (the women’s movement; mobilizing for reproductive justice; the #MeToo reckoning) and sometimes even (as with supporters of QAnon and of U.S. supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett) for reprehensible ends.
Women are more affiliative than men. One way women have tended to forge bonds in a misogynist society has been to meet up: to create book discussions, writers’ groups, study circles, sisterhoods, regular coffees with friends. The periodicity of these in-person gathering is one of the buttresses to our lives knocked down by Covid. Women who see each other regularly—even if not best friends—end up quite naturally weathering life’s passages together. Dating? Children? Perimenopause? Aging?
This talk is not all bliss. Because the patterns of our own lives are often interwoven with those of colleagues or playground parents or old college friends or a posse of neighbors, significant differences of opinion can feel shattering. But when you weave a group’s in-person relationships over time, you learn nuance: whom to trust, who’ll have your back, who bruises easily. And because now such differences of opinion or background are expressed not in a cozy living room but over social media, or in a screen shot in a Zoom gathering, they’re expressed more intractably than when part of an exchange in real time in real life. And it goes without saying—but I’ll say it—that it’s women doing the emotional labor of preventing fractures, gluing together brittle, splintering positions in a time when our more resilient and elastic in-person encounters have become rare.
May we soon be able to return in person to Lilith salons, mahjong tables, coffee dates and more, all featuring conversations in which we refine our opinions without fury. It’s time to line up your coven.
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief