I try to avoid saying “goodbye”. It feels like a full-stop; a period; a closure that suffocates the potential beyond the now. I’ve avoided saying it at the many airport-gate signoffs or tear-felt farewells I’ve endured in my life, because I’ll see you soon imparts a sense of balance to a life spent leaving.
It’s become clear to me this year that the value we’re putting on creating new relationships – and the willingness with which to engage with them – is shrinking. We’re living online, accepting social media as a substitute for socialising. We’re working ourselves sick, with the belief that we have to be available 24 hours a day. We’re here, maintaining many different accounts of that presence, but we’re not showing up.
In May, I headed to Vietnam. I spent a week wandering small streets and eating copious amounts of fresh lychees, knotted in bunches and bought from local farmers. I stumbled through mispronunciations and got lost. One day, I sat in Ben Thanh market and made conversation with a 7-year-old Vietnamese girl who was drinking mango smoothies with her family. She introduced me to her mother and four siblings. Where was I going, they asked via 7’s translations. When I told them, they informed me they were headed to the same place. Would I like to join them?
And so I took the scenic route, walking slowly down tree-lined streets to the War Museum, stopping to watch the siblings jump on staircases or pull faces at passing motorbikes.
On my last night, in Mui Ne, I was invited out on the town by a young stranger with whom I’d shared some of my lychees the day before. Her friend and she had been watching me, she said, and noticed I’d been eating alone at night. They wanted to show me their side of the city. Could I be ready at six for her to pick me up?
And so I ended up gallivanting around Mui Ne with two generous and kind locals, who introduced me to all the street vendors, school friends and aunts we came across, urging me to try this soup and that pancake and hold on tight as we motored up steep coastal hills. The hours stretched ahead. There was nowhere else to be.
In August, I returned to the States. I needed a break from Sydney. I sought the unconditional love of family, and the ease of friendships that stand the test of time. I dropped lines with the people who fill my heart, who remind me of the infinite gifts of being in the right place at the right time (for what is a relationship if not the Universe lining things up with perfect intention?), who accept me as I am.
I spent three weeks between New York City and Chicago, eating and laughing, engrossed in conversations and contentedly listening. I felt whole, and at home in that strange, floating way that resounds for those whose home is not a physical place. It was a timely and important reminder that my stars are all around me, even if they’re not physically with me.
And then there were the strangers. There were the perky couples at comedy clubs and rooftop bars at 2am. There was the guy at the airport baggage carousel, with whom shared jokes manifested into shared stories. There were people at restaurants, in the cab, at the baseball game. I invited these strangers into the conversation or they invited me – and we all showed up.
On my flight home, I ended up next to a girl from Washington. She was on her way further north, via Sydney. I gave her my number and told her to call me if she ever made it to Sydney. She did, and a month later I hosted her and six of her friends. We spent two nights on the town, in speakeasies and trawling the streets. I met friends of her friends, and ended up showing one of them around later that week. A day adventure turned into a dinner downtown, and we parted ways as one of the last trains left the city that evening.
In all of the moments shared, the nights peeled ahead and yet felt still. The weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. I couldn’t feel more deeply that there was nowhere else I could possibly be.
In these moments, my “showing up” was received with an intentional replication of the same. Laughter felt limitless and conversation was unconditional. It was exactly what I was searching for.
And then, despite all my best efforts, I fell back into the grind. I engaged as deeply and enthusiastically with the world as I always do. And I felt I kept coming up short.
I was showing up, but it seemed everyone else had missed the memo. Were they all just too busy, too important, too afraid, too ‘hurt before’, too tired, too fulfilled, too content, too encumbered by too many friends to keep track of? Where were the people who wanted to join me in the space where time stood still?
In these human connections, we are transparently here: physically, emotionally, energised with the electricity of sharing something with someone else. I believe in engaging with humanity – deeply, vulnerably and honestly – because to do so is to be available to the possibilities of the world.
And it leaves me getting hurt – a lot. Not because people are inherently uninterested in such connections, but because to be vulnerable enough to be all we are can be terrifying.
But life is too short to be scared. What greater risk is there than the risk of not engaging with a stranger because one might be rejected? What greater risk is there than the risk of not voicing an interest in someone’s time because we might face embarrassment? What greater risk is there than the risk of existing without living in a way that is true to the unabashedly brave 5-year-old version of ourselves?
And so I persevered. I organised and I invited. I sent emails and made calls and forwarded links to things we’d discussed in conversations. I told people when I was thinking of them.
We all wake up with the same amount of time ahead of us; every day, I spend 8-and-a-half hours of it working and 3 hours of it commuting. I want to spend what I have left prioritising human connection. Hour-long phone calls? I’m ready. Letters and postcards? Count me in. Flying to another city to meet you in the middle? Let’s compare calendars.
I value these connections because every other person in this world has so much to teach me. I value these conversations because there is no substitute for the intrinsically human ability to engage with someone through a combination of words, body language and laughter. I value these things because when you don’t have the luxury of growing up with a safety net, a graduating class that you’ve known since pre-K, family nearby or a consistent routine, moments of human connection and those conversations are the method with which you can create everything else.
It’s okay to tell people you are thinking of them. It’s okay to call. A lack of reply is not a reflection of one’s worth. We are all facing challenges, and timing is everything.
And so I persevered. I reiterated where I stood. And slowly, slowly, strangers began to respond. Some didn’t. Some strangers became friends. Some didn’t. That’s okay.
Stranger, friend: I hope you might see me showing up – and know that this space, this connection, is a safe realm for you to show up as all you are. To do so is to live boldly and bravely, with a courage that society often wants us to believe is unusual, unacceptable and “too enthusiastic”. I see all you are, and I cherish it. I hope you might give me the chance to understand your world, because you have no idea how highly I value that privilege.
At the end of the day, after the long hours and “the rat race” (a term my dearest mate reminded me of this week), I circle back to those rare connections with strangers, those elastic nights with old friends in foreign homes, and the feeling of enjoying someone’s company so much that you forget your eyes are getting heavy and the trains stop running. When you remember that early mornings don’t really matter that much. That distance isn’t really that difficult. That whatever this is doesn’t have to end just because the odds are stacked against it.
Society spends so much energy on things designed to remind us how little time we have, with algorithms that short-circuit our psychology to feel hungry for things that don’t fulfill us. We sap energy on issues that don’t deserve it, and let the scales tip towards concerns that won’t matter this time next year. We over-commit and under-deliver, lament our lack of time and the bounty of exhaustion, when all we really want is the opportunity to be seen, heard and to share.
I see all you are, and I cherish it.
Life is short. The grind feels unrelenting. The nights are never as long as they seem.
I say “see you later”, you see, because I never was one for “goodbye”.