Family, friends, and The Lonesome Crowded West: relationships make the world go round, and their importance needn’t dim with separation

24 Feb

Over the last eight days, I’ve traversed the California coastline, visiting family, reconnecting with old friends, and building new relationships that I suspect will prove enduring. Thru my travels, and amidst the unparalleled beauty of this charmed stretch of Pacific earth, I’ve also discovered something deeper, about friendship, family, and the importance of appreciating those you hold most dear. Relationships make the world go round, and their importance needn’t dim with separation.

As you grow, time spent with your closest connections often becomes less frequent. This is particularly true for people like me, who leave home to work in far off places, like Washington, D.C. At first, your departure from home can seem temporary. You can even go thru college and work for a few years before the feeling of being away from parents, extended family, and best friends begins to feel more permanent. Indeed, there always existed an unceasing notion in my mind that, one day,  my closest friends and relatives and I would reunite, secure in our careers, content in our family lives, and ready to recapture the heady happiness of prior years.

However, over the last eighteen months, as I’ve watched my two closest friends get engaged, plan weddings, and begin charting professional trajectories that very likely do not lead to where I will build my own career, it has dawned on me that I will likely never again live in the same city as these two dear amigos. Our interaction will remain confined to emails, texts, phone calls, and brief visits a couple times each year. Alas, the Great Valley of permanent relationship renewal doesn’t exist!

This should engender deep sadness, right?

Wrong.

My mom has always revered Central California, the place of her birth, where she lived for years, and the home of her dearest friends. She marvels about times past, the beauty of the coastline, and a more thoughtful way of life in which people focus on what matters (rather than what doesn’t), know how to live well, and treat each other decently. I always thought my mom romanticized California, painting an unrealistically rosy picture of a place just as riddled with problems as anywhere else in modern America. Subsequent trips back to the Bay Area, Monterey, and the Steinbeckian breadbasket in between (coupled with my reading last year of The Grapes of Wrath) have confirmed that I was right. For all its beauty, Highway 1 can no more prevent the frustrations of contemporary life than the Beltway can produce them, nor are its inhabitants any more enlightened or compassionate than those who toil in other environs.

But my mom has it right in a more important sense. I think the reason why this place means so much for her, and has colored her sense of how the world should be, is because the people who mean most to her (my Balke Bro and I, and our pop, excepted) live there. Coupled with the ease of the coastline, the way the ocean breeze gives levity to the cobbled pathways that line Cannery Row and Carmel, this place is, undoubtedly, home for mother. It is the place where she feels most like herself, the place where she feels at her best. Across decades of separation, dear friends, family, and memories of formative time spent together, living richly, remain emblazoned in her mind, as much her North Star for desirable existence today as they were when she was with and living them.

Maybe that’s how it will be for me and my best friends. Maybe it’s the case that, even if we don’t live in the same place, the times we have spent together will continue to shape the way I view life, and what I want to do in, and contribute to, the world. Indeed, perhaps as I watch my friends and families grow, change, experience joy, endure sorrow, and keep coming back for more, I’ll find strength, inspiration, and instruction for my own life. In the long run, perhaps the true barometer of personal connections is the extent to which they continue to affect you as years of physical separation roll by.

As my United jumbo jet races from San Francisco to Washington, making mincemeat of a cross-country journey that once took weeks to complete, I’m reminded that while the physical distance between us may remain great, the people closest to me will continue to impact my life in profound ways. It strikes me as fitting, and would likely come as no surprise to my mom, that it was a week in Central California that helped me realize this important lesson.

***

Addendum:  In case the physical separation proves too trying, I’m counting on the above referenced two amigos to kick ass in their careers and buy their old friend a fat pad in Big Sur, overlooking the ocean. Don’t let me down, fellas!

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