Nancy Townsley

My Summer of Seeing Friends: “If Not Now, When?”

(Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash)

The fall equinox is upon us and, as the seasons change, Nancy Townsley reflects on her summer spent connecting with friends during these COVID times. 

 

Small, carefully curated groups. That’s where I met with them, chums from the hallowed halls of high school and college—one person at a time, or three, a maximum of six—during my Summer of Seeing Friends, a summer quite different from the one we spent in 2020, isolated and hunkered down as a killer virus burned across the globe.

Then, we were fearful and confused, not sure whether to cover our faces (we masked) or eschew holiday invitations from family (we Zoomed), waiting like children do for their birthdays—impatiently, with sky-high expectations—for inoculations to save our lives.

Fast-forward an interminable, torturous year, and this time it was different. This time we were vaccinated. This time, it felt necessary. Time is not on our side as we barrel past Social Security age into the third and final act of our lives. COVID or no COVID, we couldn’t afford to indefinitely put off getting together. With credit to Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, we chorused: “If not now, when?”

So, we sat in rectangle and circle and oval formations and shared the stuff of our lives, stories we would not have told 20 years ago, because we had neither the courage nor the perspective to tell them honestly. One friend said, with tears in her eyes, that she’d never heard “I love you” from either of her parents growing up. Another confided that she and her husband were struggling to bring their 36-year marriage back from the dead. A third acknowledged that despite his devotion to his wife and grown kids, his first love—a classmate who died this past June—had held a piece of his heart since 1974.

It’s funny how, when faced with the reality of mortality, you tend to get truthful.

 

It’s funny how, when faced with the reality of mortality, you tend to get truthful.

 

We talked about the long, winding roads each of us had traveled since finishing our formal schooling—the crucibles we’d endured, the mistakes we’d made, the hope we still had that happy times were around the corner. We lamented the tragic breakdown of civil discourse in our society and our bewilderment at some aspects of what the world has become. We acknowledged we have more questions than answers, and would for the rest of our lives.

Even with shots in our arms and the prospect of boosters on the horizon, the specter of the pandemic hovered above us like low clouds on a midwinter morning in Oregon, where all but two of us live. Worry lines on our foreheads testified to that. Yet, when we sat together, we blossomed corporately and felt understood individually. And as we get ready to observe the fall solstice this week—in our own homes, each of us with our own unique, fraught set of circumstances—we move forward nourished by the care and concern of the whole.

“I had such a great time today. It filled my soul,” one friend wrote in a private message to me and three others after we’d spent an afternoon at my house, drinking wine, eating potluck, and going around the circle checking in with each other—not comparing or one-upping, but listening and accepting and embracing, something that didn’t happen at any of our class reunions, with the exception of the most recent one, a well-attended affair at which a level playing field was finally, mercifully on full display. In four more years, we will have been out of high school for half a century, college for 45 years. We will be older and, in our best moments, wiser. We will be more conscious and attentive.

 


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The various environments in which we met—a back deck overlooking the river, a banquet room at a restaurant, a lakeside living room—bore no connection to what we thought about and discussed. What made the difference was an awareness that, at any point, the opportunity for communion could end for us—will end for us—part of the truth of our temporality.

In spite of ourselves, we are the elders now.

“How did this happen?” we laughed. But here we are, decades past our carefree and sometimes reckless youth, many of us retired, some of us with grandchildren, a sprinkling of us single, all of us with unrealized dreams, secret ambitions, and big regrets. A common theme during our summertime soirées was the value of self-reflection, of “the examined life,” as Socrates is said to have put it.

Today, Wednesday, September 22, 2021, the autumnal equinox will give us equal parts day and night, exactly 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. That’s how it has felt over the past 19 months as coronavirus dominated our waking thoughts and defined our worst nightmares. My summertime visits with friends have given me the strength and fortitude to lean toward the light.

 

Nancy Townsley

Nancy Townsley is a longtime community newspaper journalist living in a floating home on the Multnomah Channel near Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, NAILED Magazine, The Riveter Magazine, Elephant Journal, The Manifest-Station, and Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (2012, Forest Avenue Press). She is working on a novel about a journalist-turned-activist in a time of devalued news.

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