The first time I went away by myself, other than a few extended trips with a high school friend of mine to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and camping in the mountains, was my freshman year at college. That was a ten-hour drive from my home, so returning on a weekend was simply out of the question. This was a time when communication by today’s standards was archaic. We had no cell phones, no computers, no answering machines if we even had a regular phone, which I didn’t. Mine was a payphone at the end of the dorm hallway which I shared with ninety, often drunk guys. So even if someone did try to reach me, one of us on the floor would not only have to hear it ring, but we’d have to muster up the energy to walk down the hall and answer it. Doing so then entailed learning who the person was calling for, walking to that person’s door, banging until they answered as you yelled “Bob! Phone!” and then return to bed without letting the caller know if the person was even home. So no “message” would be left.
We wrote letters, on paper, with stamps and envelopes, and walked them to the post office on campus. But with papers to write, parties to attend, basketball games, and hikes along the river, letter-writing was not a priority. Instead, when we went away to school, we went away. Gone, out of their lives. See you in someday.
I arrived that first year in August and returned to Virginia Beach in November, and during that time away, while I often called my father at his office due to his toll-free line, and my mother much less often due to my lack of ability to plug the payphone with quarters, I didn’t talk to a single high school friend in any way for three solid months.
But when I got home. Oh, wow, when I returned home that first Thanksgiving weekend, I headed to my friend Mike’s house, and our friends Dave and Michele and Kathy and Patti all came over, and we sat out back or went to Pizza Hut and we talked. We told stories and talked and laughed so hard I can still picture us sitting there like it happened last week.
We had so much to catch up on. I told them about college, about the hills of western New York, about my roommate and floormates and others I met and became close to. I told them about apple picking in Albion, New York with a friend, or about how two other friends and I drove to the Billy Joel concert in Buffalo and got lost on the way back. I had an endless bag of stories to share with them, and they caught me up on life there. Dave was married, Michele had her first son, another was still out in Nashville and another in nursing school.
We all looked different than four months earlier. Older somehow, despite the probable lack of change. But even just a little bit of maturity came from the slightest change. We met new people, added new dimensions to our personality and experiences. I was hitchhiking to Niagara Falls, Jonmark was doing well in Nashville, Mike was doing traffic and news for a local television station. We had stories to tell that we would never have had to share if we all stayed a part of each other’s lives on a daily basis. What’s more, other people entered our prose. When you break off completely and start anew elsewhere, you learn new ways—it truly is that simple. I’m not suggesting that one doesn’t mature and learn and grow without leaving. But one point is indisputable: I had no idea what any of them had been up to, no clue. And they couldn’t possibly conceive of what I’d been doing. And there was no device save the US Postal Service to keep us informed.
So it became so easy to get caught up in catching up.
And when I returned to college, the same thing happened. It had only been a week since I left for Thanksgiving, but upon return, I could not wait to see my new friends, those I was literally living with, ate with three meals a day, walked home with at three am, cried with. The few days away from them felt longer than the time away from those friends from high school I’d known for some years. Something was different. All those changes that had scared me to death before leaving turned out to be the best thing for me, and none of them would have been as significant had they occurred while still holding the hands of friends through some WIFI way of living.
During my first few years teaching college in the early nineties, I’d walk down the hallway toward class and could hear the students talking, multiple conversations overlapping about the weekend, about plans, majors, transfers, food, concerts, about life, all of it. New friends mostly, evolving into new relationships, new ways of thinking. I’ve seen strangers become partners become parents. And after a long college break, it took ten minutes to quiet down the room, everyone catching up, seemingly happier to be back then to have gone home to begin with.
But that eroded; slowly at first, and then with discouraging speed. When I approach a room for class these days, it might as well be empty for the silence. It’s easy to think it is, until I turn in the door and see twenty-three students sitting silently, staring at their phone, texting the same friends they’ve been texting since seventh grade, not knowing even the names of those next to them, one of whom might be their significant other, or a friend with similar interests, or someone with familiar plans and hopes. They don’t seem to even care.
They’ve never learned the art of missing someone, the value of silence, the strength that comes from a complete lack of ability to communicate. The time spent in their own thoughts, without music, without social media, without letting go for a period of time without knowing what happens, has slipped away. College students remain knee deep in high school conversations well into their collegiate years, and it leaves them all with a much more provincial perspective.
I have a friend who isn’t on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or, really, anything virtual. But every once in a while, she’ll email or call, even text, and we’ll talk. About our kids, about where we’ve been and what we’re working on. About the health of relatives and the times we thought of each other because of a familiar restaurant, or place we shared. It feels good, so good, to catch up. I honestly do not believe we’d be as close if we talked all the time. Or, perhaps a better way of expressing this is this: our time together is all quality because we have taken the time to appreciate each other.
There was a time we were all prodigal children, and those we loved embraced our return from that unreachable place we went to, be it away at school or another state. And we learned how love can survive such incommunicado. I once went twenty-two years without talking to someone and then spent two straight days catching up. And honestly, I don’t think I would have appreciated her half as much had we never lost touch. It helps to let go, to follow different paths, and not be tethered by technology, and then find each other again and find out how friendship has little to do with constant communication.
And more, during those times I was somewhere else–Arizona, Massachusetts, abroad, and had no means of reaching someone, I discovered more about myself than I ever would have by holding on.
I hope to see you soon.
Keep in touch.
Drop me a line.
How have you been?
So, what happened?
I have missed you.
These simple phrases have brought me such growth, such love, and such peace, they remind me that the strongest connections come after letting go.