I recently walked by a construction site and noticed that two chairs had been set up in an unfinished alcove on the first floor. They were sitting in the 4pm sun, angled slightly together, and were surrounded by debris of various kind. This is a more perfect image of companionship than my words could ever conjure, but that’s never stopped me from trying!
Like the building, each of us moves along an incomplete journey towards an optimistic future. Our journeys too are often littered with debris: failure or trauma or sickness or rejection. That seems to be the nature of journeys, or at least the ones worth taking. It’s the hours-long granola-laden climbs that offer us perspective-altering views, not the walks to the poop-laden dog parks. And happily, the debris usually pales in comparison to the companionship forged along the way.
Just take it from the two workers sitting in the sun. The site’s brick layer was impassioned to blend St. Louis’ brick tradition with modern style but was also scarred from recent divorce. And the site’s concrete pourer was excited to work but socially timid. Passion, though, attracts, and it wasn’t but a few weeks before the two had built up strong but silent admiration for each other’s work. One of them broke the ice and a few days later the two were in the sun with some beers.
Yet buildings are meant to be completed. And journeys, or at least sub-sagas, still by definition have endpoints. In a few months the building that I walked past will be done. And while I imagine there will be some sort of celebration, I suspect that the suntanned companions will depart each other’s company with heavier hearts than any brick or cement laid.
Personally, I’ve had a bit of a hard time with friends’ geographic departures over the 7 years that I’ve spent in St. Louis. I love the city for many reasons–Seoul Taco, Forest Park, and the genetics and ultimate frisbee communities–but the transience of the city is a bummer. Each of my favorite activities is special largely due to the people–Seoul Sundays, the renown Flower and Friends Marathon, my brilliant lab, and all of my frisbee teammates over the years–and it’s hard not to notice absences left and right. Life is good though; I can visit them in cool cities; and they’ve taught me two lessons.
The caged bird doesn’t sing
It is journey’s beckon that pulls loved ones from St. Louis: residency programs, a job, or a return home after an all-too-short visit. The more powerful that I was emotionally engaged, the tougher the break, but I’m pleasantly surprised each time to find gratitude underneath the pain. How lucky that our paths converged for a few days or a few years. My first lesson was that I so enjoyed our convergence because each person ventured boldly upon his or her journey. Each person had passionate life to share with me since each person was singing his or her song. And just as with the suntanned companions, passion attracts! While each person’s departure may mean less frequent opportunities to share passion, the fact that we each continue to journey and grow means that each subsequent convergent moment will be even richer. Had I detained any one of them, I would have only changed the song I so enjoyed. Similarly, any path that creates further separation, so long as it is followed with true intentions, will only lead to beautiful pastures for the both of us.
I think there may be a point in our lives when people become more influential in our journey decision-making than career or geography. My emotions sometimes encourage me to leap towards that point quickly: “just quit and go live in Boston,” was a very real, very recent thought! But I’ve learned that listening to one’s heart is like listening to Homer’s Sirens: sure, listen, learn, but tie yourself to a mast so you can’t run off too quickly. I try not to make big decisions but rather a collection of small ones. If each day I continue to make little choices to prioritize a girl or a friend, then I suspect that in a year or three our journeys will again converge.
The lonely bird sings beautifully
I’m really lucky to still have a lot of cool friends in St. Louis. I built a brick oven pizza with one and I bike to breweries with another. My second lesson was that each wayward friend left me a parting gift. At first it felt like loneliness but I soon realized that it was the opportunity to partially re-invent myself and then to cultivate new relationships. I consider my transition from college to St. Louis as a quantum leap. It was an entirely new phase of life that allowed me to re-discover what brings me joy. I think departure can achieve a similar, perhaps sub-quantum leap. It provides us the chance to re-analyze what makes us happy and how we might pursue new passions to thus attract new people. In practice, each time that I find myself a little lonely and with a little time, I consider with whom it would be cool to have a coffee in a month’s time. Then I immerse myself in an activity that leads me to that person. I like genetics, and writing, but I love how these interests gifted me the chance to debate the mechanisms of gene regulation with world leaders, or to interact with illustrators, editors, and other authors. It’s a win-win…I’m busy with loved ones, or I write a children’s book.
By making small daily decisions in such a way as to point us along our happy journeys off into the unknown, then despite any strife that life may present, we’ll have plenty of loved ones with which to enjoy a 4pm beer in the sun.