I remember it all too well

all too well
“It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.”

Listening to Taylor Swift’s lament in her beautiful and evocative “All Too Well: The Short Film” I feel my own grief well up. My last in-person engagement was a wonderful two-day workshop with several hundred cardiologists in Texas. January 28 and 29, 2020. As I’m writing this, that was twenty-two months ago.

Since then, I’ve worked with many groups online. But it’s not the same.

I’m sure you can relate. Yes, it’s wonderful to be instantly connected, with video and sound, to likeminded folks, friends, and family scattered around the country or globe. So much better than the only option in my youth — the telephone. Long-distance phone calls then cost so much that speaking to someone far away or, heaven help us, internationally was a rare treat.

But it’s not the same.

I miss doing what I love to do. Facilitating connection between people around what matters to them. Creating meetings that become what the participants want and need. The magic of the unexpected that appears when you least expect it, and, sometimes, changes peoples’ lives.

Yes, that magic can and does happen online. But, in my experience, it’s much rarer.

In-person versus online meetings

Online, we meet using group-focused platforms that don’t have the power, nuance, and flexibility of in-person meetings.

  • We can’t touch, hug, or connect physically.
  • Even if an individual’s camera is on, the resolution still isn’t good enough to read their micro expressions of emotion and body language that inform our experience of and connection with them.
  • We can’t move to different environments online like we can in person: from sharing in a circle to learning about other participants via human spectrograms, from sharing with a neighbor to talking while walking.

The platforms themselves impose additional restrictions. In Zoom, for example:

  • Spontaneous side conversations are restricted to private chat — if it’s enabled.
  • A facilitator can’t “feel the room” during small group work, because there’s no way to simultaneously monitor breakout rooms. This important task is far easier to do in person, by simply walking around and noticing what’s going on.
  • Attendee attention is hard to sense. Are they listening intently, ignoring what’s going on, or browsing TikTok? Even when their camera is on, it’s difficult to tell. And if their camera is off…

Online social platforms can provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. Participants can see who’s “in the room” and decide whom to talk with, either one-to-one or small group, in public or private. In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed holiday parties with folks who could never have practically got together in person, and these platforms are well worth exploring if you haven’t already.

But it’s not the same as hanging out with and making new friends in person.

The grief

And we’re back to the grief. “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.” I see a photo of a meeting I attended with so many friends, and I miss them, and wonder if/when I’ll see them again in-person rather than on a screen.

September 2, 2011, Event Camp Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN

I feel it. It’s good to remember the past, to feel the pain of its absence now, to be in touch with it, to acknowledge its presence. And then I return to working on being in the present, with my grief a part of me.

On our different responses to adversity

responses to adsversityWe all have different responses to adversity, and none of them are “wrong”.

I write this post a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the personal experience of an old friend, psychotherapist and author Nancy Leach. She shared the following:

This was the journey

I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.

Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.

It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.

It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.

Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.

Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.

We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.

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What airline miles can teach us about relationships

airline miles and relationships

Airline miles and relationships have something in common.

Recently I needed to fly to a conference, and reviewed my airline miles to see if I could snag a free flight. The spreadsheet I use to track my miles said I had plenty on American Airlines, but when I logged on to redeem an award the miles had vanished. Somehow, twenty months had gone by without flying AA, and the 80,000 miles I’d accrued were lost for good. I checked my email and, yes, there they were, the ignored warnings of upcoming expiring miles. An opportunity lost.

In the same way, human relationships we’ve built up over time will eventually disappear without renewal. Unfortunately, maintaining a relationship doesn’t come with an official eighteen month activity requirement, and you don’t get reminder emails. Maintenance requires conscious activity to regularly reconnect and add relationship miles to my account. Living in rural Vermont, physically distant from most of my personal and professional friends, sometimes it’s hard for me to make the effort, and my lack of action puts at risk the kinship we’ve developed.

The good news is that relationships, unlike airline miles, have no fixed expiration date. There’s always the possibility that we can revive relationships by reaching out and making contact. If we can’t meet face-to-face, telephone calls, and online contact will help, though I believe that without occasional face-to-face meetings, all but our most intense relationships will slowly fade.

My lesson of lost miles reminds me to continue to work on my relationships. I don’t want to lose them too.

Are some of your treasured relationships fading? What are you going to do about it?

Photo attribution: Jpatokal from Wikipedia Commons