One thing these last few months traveling have reinforced is my gratitude for perfectly timed personal connections. There is a saying that we have three kinds of friends: friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for a lifetime. I am lucky enough to have a handful of people I consider kindred spirits that I know will be around for a lifetime. Naturally, there are also people with whom I once had a close relationship but have disappeared from my world, not due to any wrongdoing on anyone’s part, just because life happens; the reason passed, the season changed. When I Google the phrase, one interpretation that pops up is as follows: “A friend for a reason is not really a friend; a friend for a season is a timely companion. A friend for a lifetime is a rare friend.” (Paul TP Wong) Aside from the final statement, I find this evaluation trite and unfair. And, I find great overlap between the three. My friends that have come and gone have, without doubt, been blessings no matter how long they were around, no matter what the circumstance. And, delightedly, as Paul and I slowly travel south this fall, we have found chance connections with individuals somehow relevant to our own journey.
I have an unusual, isolated memory of sitting in my new California bedroom as a child, probably six years old, holding a stuffed animal, a red dachshund. It was autographed by my former classmates at the kindergarten in Massachusetts I attended. In this memory, I hold the dog and cry and cry, quite dramatically, over the friends I’d been ripped away from, forced to leave behind. I would never find new friends like those! I suspect the emotion over these children’s signatures was not totally genuine; likely I was imitating some passionate sorrow I’d seen on TV or something. I was six. But how often have we mourned ex-lovers or a falling out with a best friend, feeling they have left something vacant in our hearts, or even just physically in our space or calendars? Maybe the vacuum has left us angry. Maybe it fed our sense of inadequacy. I don’t dismiss these feelings (and clearly something like an abusive situation is altogether different), but what if we understood – truly accepted – that the time spent was not wasted, that every interaction we had teaches something and offered exactly what we needed at that time? Or, even better, what if we recognized that maybe we were exactly what someone else needed along their path?
My “lifers” know who they are. I hope. We came together for good reasons, and a very long season. These are the marathon friends who literally have hobbled the last half of 26.2 miles with me, and figuratively stuck by through The Wall. They shove a Payday (the miracle of miracles ultra run fuel!) in my face and tell me to keep going. There are fun, easy times offset with some low points that we learn always pass when a second, third, fourth wind comes about. It doesn’t matter if we don’t talk for a year; the first thirty, including all the nerdy, awkward private school years we spent attached at the hip, matter more. Some appear later in life, when you are alone and mixed up, and who have the kind of comforting soul that makes you feel hugged each time you even think about them. They are unique to each other, from different facets of my life; they keep me balanced, and remind me of all my varied parts. While I often feel I am not as compassionate or thoughtful as they may be, I am certain my lifers have received some inspiration and strength from our friendship.
The 5K friends are equally meaningful. These folks enter for specific reasons and a shorter season, but as any ultra runner will tell you, can be harder and more painful. They do, however, prep you for the longer, drawn out marathon of interpersonal relationships and they absolutely bring their own reward. Various relationships lured me out of my shell; some softened me, but also taught me to be more assertive. During my super low period, mentally, I was lucky to have someone who was perfectly empathetic yet who also firmly nudged me toward help. While maybe not good for each other long term, it was exactly what I needed that year or two. I’ve had wonderful, yet temporary, friendships when just moving to a new town that made me feel welcome, helped me adjust – strategic and valuable stepping stones along my training cycle. Although the relationships aren’t as long, like a short, painful 5K they require a different kind of devotion to pain and a careful recovery process. I used to be afraid that kind of intense effort would hinder my marathon fitness; it turns out that in fact, they are crucial to personal bests.
Over the last three months of travel Paul and I have experienced another kind of connection. Actually, two. First, we seem to run into faces we’ve seen on social media or maybe friends-of-friends or maybe complete strangers that mirror some of our lifestyle goals, be it running, traveling, essentialism or mental wellness. Paul especially has been able to venture out of his introvert bubble and engage some conversation. Everyone has been incredibly gracious (thankfully!) and equally eager to connect with us. I don’t know what to call these exactly; perhaps they are like strides we perform at the end of a run, practice with form and turnover, more fundamental drills that builds a complete program. These encounters also have been timed perfectly though, and seem to validate that we are following a right trail. Second, since creating some distance from my former life, I’ve forced myself to openly express more personal thought than ever, and it’s created a wonderful space for new or re-connections with people I’ve known but never grown close with. All these underlying pieces of run training have come to light: the core work, the mobility exercises, the love-to-hate foam rollers, all the recovery tools you forgot were stuffed behind the running shoes in your closet. I am overwhelmed by the conversations that have come out of of my writing and out of visiting new places.
I have never made friends easily. Being naturally and wildly introverted I know I can come across as cold, detached and impersonal, but I always thought that was fine. It is true, I don’t need a large circle of friends, but just like the basic bodywork that keeps my legs moving on the trails, I do feel strengthened by these recent conversations and surprising connections. For the first time, I also consciously feel like I am providing a certain kind of friendship to others. Perhaps our present interaction is what someone else needs right now for whatever reason or season it turns out to be, which then makes me think that in fact I have been a perfectly timed and placed friend to others in the past, though maybe I was too self-centered to realize it. Again, I hope so.