Meet Me in the Middle

I’ve heard from some people that being forced to stay home, and to work from home, actually resulted in a kind of relief. The casual socializing–lunch with co-workers,  neighborhood pot lucks, and other busyness that bumps us up against other people we don’t know all that well–just stopped.

For me, the traveling stopped. The writers conferences and workshops stopped. Visits to family members stopped. Oh, the peace and quiet! The free time! The money saved! The simplicity!

And yet, there are subtle downsides to a life circumscribed by a small domestic pod on the one hand, and fleeting, arms-length interactions with strangers on the other. Casual relationships are where we learn about most potential new jobs, for example. (Sorry, LinkedIn)  Casual relationships more likely to turn into meaningful friendships than chance encounters with strangers are (sorry, dating and friendship apps), and casual acquaintances are more likely to introduce us to people who become our good friends than are the folks our besties know. We’re also more likely to adopt a new idea when we pick it up from a casual acquaintance than if family and friends present it to us.

Having a wide circle of casual acquaintances–sometimes referred by the obnoxious term “social capital”–is a hallmark of successful innovators. Why? Because by interacting with all kinds of different people in various environments, the innovator gains the benefit of many perspectives at variance with her own. From sparking creative ideas to knowing somebody who knows somebody who can suggest great gluten free cakes recipes, the person with the wider circle of acquaintances is likely to be a more well rounded and creative thinker, and to have more resources to throw at any problem.

On an intuitive level, the benefits of casual socializing make sense to me. We know the social media silo has been toxic to civil discourse (for a lot of reasons), and I know that a change of scene does wonders for my imagination, but I hadn’t figured in the societal impact of mass-hermiting. I had not put my finger on the fact that it’s middle-distance relationships that took the biggest hit, and how that impoverishes us.

So I’m peering around at my life, and looking for a small conference I might attend if we continue to make progress toward a post-pandemic society. I’m wondering if maybe I shouldn’t volunteer at a few horse shows (I used to manage them), or heck, I dunno, join a book club? I don’t want to clutter up my idyllic life with noise, but I also don’t want to get narrow-minded and ossified, because that’s the path of least resistance.

Where are you on the continuum of middle-distance acquaintances? Done with them? Awash in too many? Or–as I am–looking for a small step in a friendly but not too burdensome direction? What step might that be?

This week’s donation will go to my local county library. It’s summer, and many a child (and parent) is relying on the county library to make the days more enjoyable.



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22 comments on “Meet Me in the Middle

  1. Bravo on your donation to the library. When I retired the first thing I did was renew my library card. It’s where I first met you via THE VIRUOSO (smile).

    • I hope libraries are an institution we can all get behind…. except we don’t. When funding cuts are under discussion, the library is always among the first line items mentioned. Geesh. There are towns in Oregon that voted the close their libraries, because “taxes are too high.” I find that ironic, when Amazon pays no federal taxes.

      • I remember several years ago when our current junior senator was then governor of the state and pushed hard to lower our property taxes, since he felt they were too onerous (I don’t understand why Republicans are always pushing that ridiculousness when most of them don’t bother to pay taxes, the governor included). I was very unhappy when it passed because I ended up saving about $200 and the result was all the libraries closed their doors on Sunday (as I was working then it was my favorite library day) and closed earlier on weeknights (again, that made it harder for me to get there after work). As is probably obvious from my comment, libraries were/are much more important to me than a few dollars a month on my property taxes. Plus, there were cuts to other public services as well. Thank you for the donation these past two weeks also.

    • I agree! Libraries are SO essential!
      I remember the libraries of my childhood with such fondness… the adventures written in the books are beloved. I can’t imagine a childhood without libraries.
      There is one particular story by Selma Lagerlof called “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” and “The Further Adventures of Nils Holgersson” that I remember with particular fondness. It was written in about 1917 and I would love it if every child got the opportunity to read it. It’s about a naughty boy who shrinks down and ends up riding around Sweden on a goose. He learns what he needs to be a better human.
      This quote is a favorite of mine:
      “If you have learned anything at all from us, Thumbietot, you no longer think that the humans should have the whole earth to themselves,” said the wild goose, solemnly.”
      I so hope that funding for libraries stays and then also becomes a priority. I would love for kids who can’t afford to go to bookstores be able to read adventures and other lovely books!!!

  2. I work with a community arts alliance and, I suppose, those are my middle-distance acquaintances. During this time, our monthly Zoom meetings have helped me stay focused in our community. Online language lessons and courses have broadened my scope but those Zoom meetings have helped me keep sane! I can’t wait until we can meet in person and that day is coming soon.

    There are other relationships I an do without, at least in the flesh, including several of my In-Laws. I would describe them as middle distance relationships but closer. I am just so over the jockeying for position, who makes the better version of Grandma’s Meatballs and whose car is nicer. If there is anything I’ve learned from the Pandemic, it’s to honor those who love me and mine and let go of those who don’t.

    Our library here is finally opening up. We’ve had to make appointments or order what we’d like to pick up at the curb for most of the Pandemic. There was no browsing which is always my favorite part of going to the library. Good for you for helping yours out! 🙂

  3. As someone who is a decided introvert, the lack of parties and events has been delightful. I’m dreading the return of all those things now, actually. I’m pretty awkward on small talk, so the middle distance acquaintances are a stressor on me too. I wish I could keep the covid lifestyle, just without the actual covid health risks!

  4. Wow!! Timely topic. I have come to the conclusion that I have become physically and emotionally inert. Bothe are bad for me at every level of my being.

    I hope to find a yoga class, start attending religious services again, and do some volunteer work. I love my dogs but the people factor is more important than I realized.

    • For extroverts I think the pandemic was purgatory, at best. Having to interact with the same people day in and day, some of whom were happy to hermit, must have been draining.I’m looking for balance but finding that any increase in social interaction, or even an increase in time off home turf is making me anxious. But, I hope it’s as my conflict instructors used to say: If you didn’t get into a problem overnight, you are probably not going to get out it overnight either. Baby steps, Grace Ann…

  5. This jurisdiction insisted that school start last September, albeit with a nightmare of caveats and a lot of kids homeschooled. It was and is the opinion of public health that the lack of a year’s social interaction would do kids more harm than Covid-19. Is that the middle distance you mean?

    It’s been miserable for the teachers remembering the hand washing, separate start/stop times, different entrances and exits, staying with your cohort, wearing a mask in the staff room… but at least they were spared trying to run a hybrid classroom again.

    I’m with Sue. I need to leave the house, even to work in my own yard, talk to the neighbours over the fence…

    • I watched that debate, Marianne, about how harmful it is for kids to stay home, and the “terrible” damage staying home was doing to them, but to me, the discussion lacked nuance. If your parents aren’t used to parenting 24-7, if they are trying to work from home while also supervising your school work, if connectivity to school isn’t bug-free… the damage is not strictly a result of “lack of social interaction.” It’s more the case that, by keeping kids at home, we expose how necessary school has become to Wall Street, how disconnected we are from our children, and how much technology has invaded every space of our lives….
      But sure, foghorn about how damaged kids are, when they are returned to the model of upbringing that served the species for time out of mind.
      On the one hand… on the other hand, some kids delight in school, get their only safety and structure at school as well as their only hot meal, and get tons of services at school (see above, Wall Street exploits school shamelessly).
      A hard choice, and that’s without getting into ethics of using children as guinea pigs, putting teachers’ lives on the line, ignoring disease vectors, and prioritizing parental employment over child welfare or grandparental life expectancy.
      Got me going!

  6. Another happy hermit. I admit I have used the excuse of the pandemic to avoid things I’d rather always avoid and I don’t miss “middle-distance” relationships or any others, really. I read books and stuff on the computer and that satisfies my needs to interact with others.

    • I was a happy hermit, if you can be happy during a pandemic, but then I see that hermiting is more likely to result in close-mindedness, narrow-mindedness, lack of resources, and… enough of that rings true, particularly the lack of resources, that I’m taking another look at what I do with my time.

      • Oh my goodness I was so happy when the quarantine prevented return from spring break. The stress relief was huge. But i also lost the kids and that was wearing. I love working with those special needs kids. They respond really well to being truly liked. It is a happy interchange even when it’s tough. So that was a loss.

  7. I don’t have many casual acquaintances. I have family and people I work with, and a few long time friends but we are all busy. Most of my relatives are out of town, and even so, we are still trying to maintain social distancing. Only 30% of people in my state are vaccinated. My husband and son are at home, so I am not alone.

    I enjoyed working from home. We went back to work in October 2020, and it’s okay but we don’t get too close to each other either in the office. After I retire, if I get bored, I’ll do some volunteering. I’ll definitely enjoy having more reading time.

  8. I guess I am a semi-extrovert. I definitely missed my middle distance relationships during the pandemic. All my volunteer activities closed, my two book clubs withered and died and my church went online. Fortunately I have a neighborhood group which continued to meet in people’s yards all year, and another church group that did the same, plus a friend up in the mountains whom I went to see twice a week. I find that those casual get togethers feed my soul somehow – help with that never ending search for connection with other souls. We are all such solitary little molecules bouncing around the universe, that to connect with another molecule is a huge relief. I am not a meditative sort it seems. I get weird just trapped in my own head for weeks on end!

  9. My middle-distance acquaintances have dropped to nil. I could use a few more despite my introvertedness.

    People talk to me and, sometimes, when I am in stores and people are needing help, I help them. I’ve picked up things that someone was having trouble getting off the shelf. I’ve shown people where to find product. I’ve talked to people about choosing between choices (or not to choose and get both). I’ve given lots and lots of color advice.

    That doesn’t sound like an introvert, but I am. These small interactions are enough for me to get some human communication going, but not enough to drain all my energy away.

  10. As we and our friends (we are all seniors) became vaccinated, we first had just one couple over for dinner a few times. As we became more comfortable with seeing people in person again, we broadened our group to 3 couples. We may eventually go back to our summer Ukulele friends party (about 25 to 30 people) by mid to late summer depending on how the infection rate goes. It’s usually mostly outside, however, when evening falls and the bugs come out, we end up in the house, so we will determine how comfortable we are with that at a later date. As a compromise, we may start the party earlier in the day so by 6:00 or 7:00 people are ready to leave. So, to answer your question, I am loving seeing the close friends again and am ready to branch out to “middle-distance acquaintances.”

  11. I think casual relationships are the most draining to me as an introvert. Close friends are close for a reason and I get a lot from them and are balanced in how much I expend and how much receive. Casual relationships seem to just cost me so much energy that I haven’t missed them. The interactions are definitely not instant gratification but I am realizing how important having an active casual category is, and that there is some cumulative benefit to my mental health. Your examples of having contact with new ideas and potential friends, jobs, etc. are all sound reasons to get back in the swing of casual interactions and they reinforce my own assessment, but I am certainly having a hard time with motivation in the moment. I’m giving myself until the end of the summer to pick 2 ideas that broaden and strengthen my “social capital” and explore new circles. Babysteps.