“I started to wonder what small part of me shone brightest to those from my past. Likewise, whether those relationships grew because of what I saw in them."
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Sitting on a Zoom call, the other Book Interrupted members and I discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. Though now they are some of my oldest friends, long ago most of these women started as strangers. This is something I really hadn’t thought about until Lia asks: “Do you find that your perceptions of people are locked into the first 2-3 times you met them?” Interestingly, the when in my life that I met these ladies contributed to an impression of me that persisted. To these ladies I’m a party girl, a science geek, or her first bilingual friend. And I am—or have been—these things, and more.
Her insight hit me as a sequence of past impressions, relationships, and lives. All my selves, as seen through the eyes of those that loved me into existence. I started to wonder what small part of me shone brightest to those from my past. Likewise, whether those relationships grew because of what I saw in them.
I became nostalgic.
Not the living-in-the-past-at-the-expense-of-the-present kind of nostalgia that Bruce Springsteen sings about in Glory Days. Closer to the kind that Michael Chabon describes as “… the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.” The remembering of moments and people that were gone and yet still very much an important part of me roused a kaleidoscope of feelings: happiness mixed with sadness, peppered with all the others felt during those past happenings.
My heart kept returning to one person in particular.
As a teenager a series of events found me invited to a tai chi group that met in the park. In the coming weeks, months, and years I developed a connection with a man four or five times my senior. He was my teacher and a grandfather figure after I had lost mine. He showed pride in me in ways the other men in my life could not. He was dependably there every day, and I returned the favour. Our relationship was based on movement, looks, body language, and the occasional word—neither of us fluent in a common language. Sometimes it was just us two, executing the tai chi movements, back-to-back, our rhythm in sync, after most of the group had gone.
After moving for university, those days fell away. At first, I would return when visiting home. Eventually, life took me further away: new responsibilities, relationships, and struggles demanded my time.
Years later, I bumped into his son and asked after my friend. Turns out he, too, used to wonder about me. By then, the tai chi movements had faded in my memory, but our connection had not. I longed to see him. Regretfully, I hadn’t yet learned how to carve time out from the things I had to do and make room for the things I wanted to do. Perhaps I still haven’t. Time marched on. The city demolished the picnic shelter where the group met. The next time I saw his son, I learned my friend had passed away.
Like every friendship, ours was unique. It was special to me not because of its uniqueness, but because of both who I was to him and he to me.
While I don’t believe that any one person can know another completely, I also don’t consider that tragic. I don’t subscribe to the glorified idea of soulmates. Each meeting, each relationship can serve as an opportunity to explore another part of ourselves through time and context. In this way, it seems I’ve lived many lives in my lifetime, all of which have made me.
What other feelings did the memory of my friend evoke? Connection, belonging, acceptance, peace, pride, confidence, and friendship. And later, longing, regret, guilt, and grief. Or in short, happiness mixed with sadness. Shorter still: love.
That friendship was just one of many. Some are short and others span decades. The person I was at the beginning of each is not always one I want to reminisce about. While giving a great first impression might be important in a job interview, these thoughts reminded me to forgive if I didn’t bring my best self or even my whole self to every interaction. One never knows what impressions will blossom into important relationships.
How do your relationships differ in context? How does your first impressions of your friends affect your current relationship? Try asking some of your oldest friends what their first impressions of you were, and whether they hold up today.
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