Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Near and Far

The other day I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. We used to work together at a restaurant. Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry knows that working together in that environment makes for fast friendships. Waiters, waitresses and bar tenders are a motley bunch who share all of life's dirty details after a few short shifts together. Lifers learn to be reserved at some point, but they'll still get sloshed and spill their guts on some random evening when their guard is down.

This particular girl and I had little in common. She's a single mother, a regular church goer, and from a small town in Alabama. I'm not any of those things. I remember that she would make me Jack and Diet Cokes in to-go cups at 10 am on a Tuesday when making it through a shift seemed like death. After long Sundays of waiting on the brunch crowd, our group would gather like hurricane survivors in the bar next door. I've gotten drunk with this girl. Under such circumstances you're likely to share everything with a person.

She transferred to another store owned by the same company, and I hadn't seen her since until the other day.

She walked up to the Starbucks counter inside the grocery store where I was picking up some snacks for a work thing. I was surprised to see her. I'd heard she was moving back to Alabama. She said that she's leaving in 8 weeks. We chatted a bit about her. We chatted even less about me. I tend in those situations to give the stock response of, "Same old, same old," when asked what I've been up to. As we hugged to part company, I said, "Nice knowing you."

She said, "Nice knowing you, too."

It was so oddly perfect. So rarely do people feel that comfortable acknowledging exactly what they've been with each other. Neither of us tried to draw out the conversation out of guilt over neglected friendship. We both essentially said, "I'm never going to see you again." As I walked out of the store, I felt extremely touched by the simplicity of the whole thing. It is okay that this is impermanent. It is okay to admit that very little belongs to me.

I have recently been contemplating the importance of family. I don't want to have children, but I want relationships in my life that feel somewhat permanent and secure. It's odd because I've always been such a proponent of making sure everybody knows that security is an illusion, so when I finally admitted to myself that, yes, I want commitment, I had to carefully consider what that really means. It seemed silly in light of my general attitude. The conclusion that I came to was that it all still fit together. I can still acknowledge the true transient nature of life and seek some feeling of security while I'm alive. I was raised in a family--a family that is a family no matter what. I find it comforting that I know that we've all of us hated the others at some point but we never thought about not loving each other. I can honestly say that I've hated my mother more than an other person I've ever hated. But she was always my mother, and I always loved her. That commitment means I stayed until I didn't hate her at all anymore.

There is a depth to that kind of experience that rugged individualism just cannot accomplish.

Someone once told me about a man he knew whose wife had multiple sclerosis. He said that this man was one of the happiest men he'd ever met. He said he faced all manner of extra burdens simply because of all the things his wife couldn't do. And this man helped her, gladly. The person who told me this story said he could never do that.

I watched that same man care for his aging mother in the same way, though. He was doing it, too. He just thought that because he had moments of anger and frustration about his situation, it wasn't the same. He thought that diminished his love. We are none of us saints. It probably made his love that much deeper. And the man who took care of his ailing wife probably had the same moments. Nobody said this stuff would be easy all of the time. They only said it would be good. They only said it would be better than the alternative. We want people to be there when we need them. We have to be willing to be all that we would have them be for us.

It is important to know what we mean to each other. It is important that we mean something at all.

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