Thursday, November 5, 2015

How Do You Bridge the Distance When There's No Distance?

We talk a lot about what today's teens and young adults have: information, so easily acquired. Opportunities, so easily acquired. A global awareness and sensitivity made possible, I'd argue, by the ease of communicating with and learning from people whose bodies may be continents away but whose minds and hearts are as close at hand as one's computer.

What we spend less time discussing is the ways in which these incipient adults have been deprived of experiences we older people took for granted.

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When I was the age my eldest son is now, I was busy falling in love. There's nothing terribly profound about the experience of falling in love, except of course in the minds of the lovers themselves. Attempts to make art out of what it is to fall in love do not translate very well to the larger community, nor should they. At the same time, to the person in love for the very first time, everything becomes charged. No act is ordinary, infused as it is with thoughts of the often-absent partner: Where is he or she? What is he doing now? When will I see her?

I fell in love during a windy, rainy fall in Providence, Rhode Island. The relationship was cemented one snowy December evening with a kiss on a street corner in New York City, a kiss witnessed by a waiting taxi driver who had the forbearance not to honk his horn and gesture to his running meter.

As newly minted couples do, we spent every moment together on our historic college campus until mid-May arrived, and with it the punishing surrender to the end of the semester and thereafter a summer spent in different towns, too far away from one another for even the promise of a visit.

I had not expected the physical pain one could feel in missing someone.

What he and I did -- how we managed, really -- was to write to one another. (We phoned each other, too, but phone calls were expensive, timed as they were by the minute.) Real letters, real envelopes, real stamps. Long waits between the arrival of one letter and the next. The knocking of my heart as I rifled through the day's mail. How it felt to see his handwriting. I still remember his typewriter 'a's' (an affectation, to be sure) all these many years later. I remember committing to memory the few events in my week that I deemed worthy of describing for his benefit. I remember planning how I would shape those events for his eyes. For his eyes, and for his eyes only.

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Those days are long gone, as is the person who figured in them. The mail in my mailbox today consists largely of bills, credit card offers, and catalogues. Money in, money out. My own children do not write letters, except when requested by me to write a thank-you note for a gift received.

And the young lovers of today? They don't experience a break from their loved ones. They don't have to. They can Skype, IM, text, or tweet. Think about this:

They never have to experience a day, or a week, apart.

I wonder how their discourse is affected by its very frequency. Does it turn banal? Do they write like long-married couples? "Can you pick up milk while I take the cat to the vet?"

Is there time for layers of meaning to accumulate?

Do I remember my old relationships as well as I do because my brain had to imagine them and perhaps even sustain them during periods when a partner and I were forced apart?

I can't help but feel a sense of loss on behalf of these kids who seem to have everything. Their world is so wide, but how deep is it? How deep can it be?