Long Distance Love and Friendship
I was in college when I met my first boyfriend. He was presenting at a conference, I was working the registration table (and various other parts of the event). Although we did have shared interests, I have always wondered if we would have gotten together had there been anyone else our age in attendance.
We hit it off, and then the weekend was over. He lived in Chicago and went to school in Texas. I went to school in Indiana and lived in Washington State.
We began to “date” over the distance.
It was eight months before we saw each other again. Eight months of phone calls in the stairwell, emails, and Skype. We’d been dating for eight months, but we were just going on our first date. That first date was all about making up for lost time. We went ice skating, had coffee, and went to dinner.
But even though we were thrilled to be in the same place at last, we were strangers to each other in some ways. I didn’t know all of the facial expressions that went along with his words. I had forgotten how much taller he was than I am. I was tentative about physical and verbal closeness, suddenly shy without the phone, or thousands of miles, between us.
That relationship ended when he was honest about the things he left out of our conversations. As he shared those hard, sad things with me, it became clear that I was in love with someone I didn’t know at all. Someone who had hidden himself in the distance.
I vowed never to date long-distance again.
Many years from that day, I am in many long-distance relationships. These people are as near to me as Portland and Seattle, and as far away as the Midwest, Durham (in both the US and UK), Pennsylvania and the Netherlands.
It didn’t take me long to discover that the writing community was tight knit, and in many cases, very supportive. I was thrilled to glean blogging tips and book recommendations, as well as finding critique groups to belong in, and beta readers for longer projects. But the most unexpected part of being in this online community, was the friendship.
I’ve written this month about some of my challenges with friendship, learning to listen when people are saying no to relationships and what it costs me to pretend to be someone else for the sake of a relationship. It’s difficult to find kindred spirits, and my in-person ones are few and far between (and greatly treasured). But in the blogosphere, and the Twittersphere, I discovered a concentrated pool of kindred spirits. We were writing about the same things, talking about the same things, hoping for the same things. These friendships became just as real to me as any I have in “real life.”
At the beginning of last year, in response to a resolution question, I responded that I wanted to meet some of my online friends in real life. Those words became prophetic.
One of my first in real life meetings took place in late January, almost a year ago. At each step in the process, I addressed my nerves. My friend Natalie and I were planning to meet between Portland and Spokane, in Walla Walla for the weekend. I wondered if I was crazy. I wondered if we would have to warm up to each other, the way I had with my ex. I wondered if the time would drag, or if our friendship would go up in smoke when we were actually face to face.
I arrived first, checked into the hotel, and waited.
As soon as she came in the door, I knew I needn’t have worried. I was in a hug almost before I could think. I’m not sure that we stopped talking at all. She fell asleep mid-sentence.
Almost a year later, Natalie is still one of the first people I want to process with, share a story from a date (good or bad), or ask to pray for me. We have made long-distance work.
Looking back on last year, I realize that I met 40+ online friends in real life. There were a couple of disappointing encounters, but on the whole, the overwhelming majority were the people I loved online, in real life. They weren’t hiding anything in the distance.
In addition to these friends, I met new far away friends to begin keeping in touch with through the internet. These friendships have become precious and life-giving, as well.
I didn’t get many Christmas cards this year, but the majority of the ones I did get were from online friends. When I moved into my new house, I got a housewarming present from a Twitter friend. When I began dealing with my depression diagnosis, I found a listening, sympathetic ear across an eight-hour time difference. When my heart got broken, I picked up my phone.
In the midst of meeting and connecting with all of these wonderful people, I realized that what had happened with my boyfriend wasn’t about the distance, but about him. He would have proven to be that same person, had we been living in the same city, I just might have seen it sooner. Maybe.
Preceding my long distance relationship with my boyfriend, a friendship blossomed between me and a writer I greatly admired. I wrote her a fan email in college, and she responded. To this day, seven years later, I’m not sure I’ll ever have a better friend. I’m sure that relationship planted the seed for a fearless search for connection, even if I had to get it mail order.
There are those people who get you. They are your tribe, your people. Then there are people who don’t get you, but still love you dearly. I have found both kinds across the miles.
My friend Natalie and I like to use the hashtag: #TwitterFriendsAreRealFriendsYo. I have found that to be true. Like all real friends, we don’t escape the ugly, and the hurtful, but we also don’t escape real connection, or belonging.