I spent this past weekend in one of my happy places – the mountains of North Carolina. I love it there, even if it is not home in the way the hills of my native North Mississippi are home to me. But it feels in some ways closer to home than the subtropical prairie of Central Mississippi where I live now. Geography is a funny thing.
But the thing that drew me back there this time was not geography, but people. This pandemic has been hard on this sociable introvert, and my experience of the pandemic has been a conservative one: Because of Renee’s heart transplant, which renders her severely immunocompromised, we have been more careful than most careful people, which means lots and lots of distancing ourselves from others.
I drove the 9 hours – I’m not ready to risk getting on a plane yet – and got in late at night, and was warmly greeted by an old friend. He’s the sort of friend with whom you sit until long in the night, catching up and sharing stories from your lives that are too granular to include in the periodic phone calls, the sorts of things that don’t make the curated feeds of social media. The conversation ebbs and flows, the silence is comfortable when it happens, the topics are wide-ranging, and suddenly you realize it is two AM.
Over the next few days, I spent time with several old friends – people I knew from the Before Times. Not just before-the-pandemic times, although that is true, but also from the before-my-life-was-what-it-is-now times. They knew the angry Hugh, the impulsive Hugh, the Hugh that burned out. They knew him and his faults and loved him anyway. And it was delightful to be back among people who truly knew me, in a way I have not been known by anyone since moving back to Mississippi.
That is no reflection on the people here – it’s mostly about time: The people in the mountains have known me for more than a decade. We worked together on various projects together, we made things together, and together we traversed tragedy and joy -divorces, deaths, weddings, and babies, all together. When I fell, they picked me up and loved me – hard. In short, we had opportunities for connection I have not had here, where ⅔ of my time has been spent trying to survive a pandemic in front of a Zoom screen while wearing sweatpants. It’s not the same thing at all.
An old friend who has drifted out of my life would say, when I would do or say something that indicated I truly knew her likes and dislikes, her fears, her quirky guilty pleasures, that it felt good to be known.
And that’s truly it, isn’t it? The desire to be known fully, to be understood, to be seen and heard, to be acknowledged and remembered. This is, at its core, why I write.
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I find myself these days craving connection. My old friends are laughing at this, as I am horrible at staying in touch with people I love. Some of this is my ADHD, as a common thing people with my type of brain do is find that the thinking about a thing feels to our brain as if we did it, so my remembering my friend Kim and thinking fondly of her elicits the same feeling in my brain it would if I had sent her a text or note, so having had the memory, I no longer feel the drive to act on it. Of course, this does nothing to let Kim know that I was thinking of her, but here we are.
I also wonder though, how much my paralysis around reaching out to people isn’t so much my paralysis, but unreasonable expectations set up by technologies that are less than a generation old. As late as the 1990s, most of us had a relatively small group of people about whom we knew what their day-to-day life was really like. In 1998, one might know from an email – or a decade earlier, from a phone call or letter – that a cousin in a distant town took their family to the amusement park, but now we know that their eight-year-old threw up on the roller-coaster, that the six-year-old hates corndogs, that they lost their car in the parking lot, and everyone got sunburned.
And we know that level of detail about hundreds of people, regularly.
There is a phenomenon on social media where, although I am writing a public post, which theoretically can be seen and read by anyone on earth with an internet connection and a browser, in my mind, it is actually only intended to be read by a select few. I don’t parse my words as if it is a broadcast to the planet, but rather as if it is more like a Christmas Newsletter, going out to people I love.
But the inverse is also true – when we read other people’s posts, it is perceived by our brain as if it is written to us specifically, which is one reason we take it all so personally. I saw a post from someone I don’t really know where he was complaining that people were shoving their love for the 2022 Superbowl Halftime Show down his throat, when in reality nobody had addressed him specifically at all – they just had opinions that they posted on their own wall, which he could see. But to his mind, they were all addressed to him.
Because of this, my brain tells me that all my friends are sharing many details of their lives with me, and I am not reciprocating at their level, so the relationship feels imbalanced in my head. But they are many, and I am one, and so their collective flood of sharing is naturally dwarfed by my own output. In other words, it is an ever-escalating race that is unwinnable.
The people I saw this weekend in the mountains – some of them I have not seen in the three years since I have been gone, but we did not lack connection. The sporadic emails, texts, and glimpses into their life on Instagram were enough to sustain the relationship until we could sip tea together in the same room, rehash the old stories, and tell new ones.
The truth is, I could be better about calling and writing, but the bigger problem is my definition of connection is probably skewed by unrealistic expectations because of stories I tell myself about myself.
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None of that diminishes the very real longing I have for the deeper connections here, where I currently live. The additional friction created by the pandemic – the uncertainty of who is safe and who is not, the difficulty finding a place to meet where one feels safe, the second-guessing and cultural gaslighting – are all real factors that make this really hard.
But I find myself these days eager to do the work it will take. I have lunch and coffee meetings (on patios, in places that require masks, with vaccinated and boosted people) scheduled. I’m trying to regulate my social media usage in a way that makes it a servant instead of a master.
And I’m trying to be honest about what I need and to state my needs. And what I find myself needing these days, more than anything else, is connection.