Something to share

She walks through Central station on the phone. Her pace is not hurried, this is a casual walk through the stretch of station between the Tung Chung line and the Island line. She, like myself, has probably walked this corridor a thousand times. We are both carrying burdens, heading home. Unlike myself, she is on the phone. Her arm is held out, video on. She’s FaceTiming a friend, whose expression, when I glimpse it at the end of the moving walkway, suggests this is not a rare conversation. They are chatting, but the view on the other end must be uneven, as the woman ahead of me makes no effort to keep the camera still. She is not sharing a view, or making a call. She is sharing her life, walking home with a friend. She is walking home with a friend’s company, live from a different country.

I make this walk like I often do, eyes on the crowd, watching the people I am lucky to share this city with. I watch for teen fashion, for adult fashion, for advertising tendencies and to gauge the city’s mood. Big train stations have a feel, a sense of motion regarding the current day. On Sundays this station is filled with the chatter of families, the joy of those out for an excursion. It’s a pleasant feel, more spandex, more beach gear. Hong Kong is a city of people who like to do, to exercise, to go out, and the station is filled with their energy. Last night, walking into Central on the way home after work, the station was filled with those in costume headed out for the evening, to LKF or other gatherings. Their joy, the energy spent on each outfit, was palpable in a busy station, far more people arriving than normal at 8 pm on a Friday.

I think of my own friends, old ones. Like the woman walking ahead of me on video, my friends too are in another country. They are, for the most part, asleep. Time zones are impartial masters, caring not for our desires. And yet when they are awake I rarely walk them to work on video, I rarely live stream my life simply for the joy of sharing space. It’s been months since I spoke on the phone to anyone other than family. I video call for work, from offices, far more than I do from my own phone in my own house, let alone from the beach.

Some of this is a matter of time zones. I’d share Lower Chung Sha with more folk if I could, but the five pm hour that’s most beautiful, as the water merges with the sky, doesn’t cross time zones well.

More though it’s a matter of life, of the way we share. I doubt the early developers of Skype or other video solutions imagined this casual walk or the hundreds of women on video with their families from the park in Hong Kong on Sundays. They sit on the ground eating foods from home and chatting, singing, relaxing. So often they are not alone, at least not wholly. The video bobs and weaves, and quality is intermittent, but on the other end of the screen is someone else’s life, opened to them for the afternoon. Briefly, despite distance, they inhabit the same space, a blend of Indonesia and Hong Kong, of park and house, and a family is whole again.

I’m so grateful that this technology is everywhere. I’m glad for the casual sharing and for getting to watch, even over shoulders, how great a distance we can now cross.

The distance of friendship

Chicago view

In Chicago the air is crisp and the skies gray. For a boy from upstate New York it’s welcoming weather here at the end of November. Sitting in an apartment window overlooking a park I watch bundled locals walk their dogs. At this time of year dog walking is dependent on the owner’s patience, the time of day, and the amount of clothing. A man stands with his arms wrapped around his torso waiting as his pet squats along a fence. A different man stands with his hands in his pockets as his dog sprints back and forth in the caged area. The animal is ecstatic to be freed from the apartment. The man less so, obviously missing heating and insulation.

In the morning though the light is beautiful and Chicago feels like a city. I visit East Coast establishments like Dunkin’ Donuts and mingle with construction workers and doctors. We are here for a friend’s wedding, for a celebration. The days on either side serve as a peaceful break from the rest of our lives.

The celebration and the evenings out are a reminder of the power of friendship and the challenges of distance. So many of the friends here, like so many friends everywhere, met in college or high school. Now all in their thirties these bonds are a reminder of who they were and who they are, friends who can recall early driving mishaps and the lack of cleanliness of college apartments. Friends like these aren’t a necessity, of course. Spending time with those who know us and who have known us is always a luxury. The further we move and the more frequently, the rarer such evenings become. In some ways that’s the best part of weddings, bringing together a group of people who know each other so well and who have shared so much.

On the flight home, far too early in the morning after a late night of deep conversation, I think about how much of our travel is dedicated to maintaining friendships. When asked about our plans or our vacations it’s the location or the specific adventures that we recall, Tokyo’s busy trains or the relaxed feel of Los Angeles. Yet in both cases, in most cases, it’s friends that have taken us there, and friends we will return for. Having moved so often and met so many people their conversation is what I miss, and so much of what brings me to the airport so frequently. Without planes, without sleeping in so many different zip codes each year, those friendships would fade.

The sad truth is they fade anyway. Visiting can not replace living down the street or in the next room. Time spent catching up can’t replace time spent doing, making new memories. This, finally, is teaching me the sacrifice of being constantly on the move, constantly searching for another place to discover. Because for every new person we meet and place we feel comfortable there’s another we have to work to hold on to. Too many messages I write say that we’ll try to visit this year” instead of see you tomorrow.”

All this is of course the complaints of the truly fortunate. Given both opportunity and means to travel it is easy to complain about their challenges. Gifted with friends far and wide it is easy to complain about their distance, rather than celebrate their quality. Yet standing in a group of friends who have known each other at least a decade and currently live within a five mile radius is a poignant reminder of the virtues of staying close.

Landing in San Francisco reminds me that I am wrong. The city is warm and inviting. We bicycle to the gym and back in the sunshine. A friend from college, fifteen years ago now, texts to say taking care of our cat was no problem. Another Vassar friend messages about meeting up soon, and a friend in London, whom I met in Japan, writes with book advice. These interactions, all brief and all electronic, make me smile. Because this is why it’s possible to maintain friendships across so many years and so many miles, despite moving houses and countries: we are so rarely truly out of reach.

Which is a good reminder for a week filled with love and Thanksgiving.