A week from today I will go to Thailand to visit my daughter who lives there. We often talk on phones or computers a few times a week, and we message and use e-mail. There are periods when I think we are caught up, and periods in which we lose track altogether. I cannot wait to visit her in person—but why? How nice is a visit? How is a visit nice? What is a visit for?
So many visits. That is what a lot of life is: being with a person for some sort of visit, and then being apart; and thinking of that person deeply or casually. But if we spent all our brain-space on forethoughts of visits, visits themselves, and afterthoughts of visits, we would not get anything else done. Controlling visits is part of time management. I want to visit. I want to be alone. I cannot have it all. Why do I want to visit?
Here are a few of my recent social visits, not to mention institutionalized ones like book club (tomorrow night), or informal ones like shopping, work, or my aqua-aerobics class.
- I met my recent undergrad for lunch today. I had hardly seen her last term. Did we ever hug! Somehow, it was a relief to see her. I felt all was right with the world.
- In fall of 2009, our family hosted Luana, a Brazilian high school student. Her impact on us was much greater than we would have thought, given the four months she lived with us. And Luana’s back! She mustered time and money (not easy for a twenty-six year old Brazilian in school) to visit places and people she first knew eight years ago. And we took up right where we left off.
- Over Christmas, one of my husband’s grown kids and her family stayed with us for a week. Then we hosted family get-togethers for my husband’s family and for mine. Family has so many shared moments and inside stories. We re-told old ones and developed more.
- A couple of weeks ago I went to Berkeley for a party with Mimi Koehl (my post-doctoral advisor) and her other post-docs, grad students, undergrad workers, and associates over her long career. I got to hang out with people in the lab circa 1990-1992. Go us! It was astonishing to see the different directions we’d gone, and that we were still so much the same.
- In early December, I flew east to visit another of my husband’s daughters and her family, and one of my brothers and his wife. We had shared moments but on their turf, where I’d never been before.
First off, each visit leaves me different from what I was before. How in the world does that happen? Social interactions do not rely on physical stimuli the way a hammer hitting a nail does, and yet there’s a reaction. No one truly believed Uri Geller could bend spoons without touching them purely through concentration, but I do know that if someone stares at me, calls my name, or sends me a difficult note that I read, I will react. I’m astonished that a glance or words—cast from a distance, caught and interpreted by me–can make me react.
Second, if visits change me, is that “what visits are for?” Social interactions move the world around. They often shake us up and make us feel. They give us a chance to re-evaluate our positions. But moving the world, and causing us to feel and to re-evaluate: on the surface, those sounds like work. What is the incentive? Why do I want to see you?
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I got to watch my dad, now 92, visit with two sets of his friends this last year. They used little time catching up on the details of their years apart. Rather than focus their talk on the “nouns” themselves (ailments, politics, or travel), they acknowledged feelings about those nouns. It is hard to say what they talked about, but the upshot was “warmth.”
A theme was enormous gratitude for the existence of many things–rental cars with GPS they didn’t understand, time zones, assistive technologies, relatives, friends, and housing. Again, the noun did not matter as much as the feeling.
And almost totally missing was commiseration. I think with their perspectives of time and experience, specific concerns had gone out the window. Every one of them (and us) has been through turns of fortune measured in disease, economy, possessions, relationships, and physical and mental abilities. Windows on those topics could have been opened, but I believe that dad and his guests felt those views were not worthwhile to share.
I think they were checking in with each other to affirm that they were still moving mentally, and perating in a universe where moral and ethical decisions are made and lived by. By demonstrating and observing one another’s thought processes, the parties were endorsing and celebrating one another’s humanity.
The gift bestowed by those visits was “presence.” It shouted “I have survived up until now. You have too. I have made decisions as have you. The choices are interesting and can be debated. We are together in this astonishing and varied Earth.”
Re-affirming that gift is what I think visits are for.
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So I think about my visit with Luana. We reeled through photos of 2009 last night: her arrival, her running cross-country, a hike in the Cascades. We’ve been cooking foods she remembered, and tomorrow she will make brigadeiro, a calorie-bomb that my husband I recall, a concoction of sweetened condensed milk, Nestle’s Quik and chocolate sprinkles. Yes, I want to taste brigadeiro again, and yes, I want to know what Luana’s life is like–how is her mom doing with Luana now in a different city, what her step-brother is up to, and where she goes for lunch. But deep down, it’s the essence I seek, and not the details.
When I see my daughter a week from now, I will take tuk-tuks (little taxis), eat street food (carefully—she is in the hospital right now, probably from her recent Cambodia trip), and laugh with her when she points at the green head of the flying golden tree snake that lives in the downspout of her house. She will probably be on the mend, and if she is not, I will be glad I am there. That is all extremely important, especially with her being sick, but mainly I will be there to check in and co-live a while.
I still cannot fathom the profound effects a call, a note, or a glance can have on someone else. It has to be some sort of magic. But as a human, even a slightly hermit-like one, I am a social creature, I am susceptible to that magic, and I cannot wait.
And while I am on the topic, I cannot wait for events coming up this summer–my 40th college reunion, and the Gordon Research Conference I am co-organizing. I’m eager to visit with people when we cross paths. Until then, I am thinking of you … sometimes. And sometimes I am not.