Knowledge is learning something every day.
Wisdom is letting go of something every day.
Against the dull roar of eight-million-plus, I’ve often felt a shadowy sense of loss as another train whizzes by me, the faces in the windows clear for a few seconds before fading into the future. I find myself thinking about how unlikely it is that I’ll ever see them again, or if I do, how there’s not a chance in hell of recognition.
Enter craigslist. An unlikely credit, perhaps, but along with equipping me with temporary housing, a kitchen table, and cake decorating classes, the venerable 12-year-old marketplace has impressed on me the value of transitory relationships.
Take the other day. I was fifty bucks and a lunch-hour meet-up away from landing a pair of Andrew Bird tickets. Should’ve been easy enough, considering the man with the goods worked all of ten blocks from me. But circumstances were not in our favor, and it took several emails, a phone call, a missed opportunity, several texts, and a few more emails before we finally managed the exchange.
It happened on the corner of 23rd and Fifth in Manhattan, at which point I already knew a) where this person worked (in his email signature), b) something about his taste in music (somewhere in the email thread, he’d mentioned a favorite band), c) the kind of schedule he keeps (hectic), and d) that he’s somewhat easily irritated but ultimately sympathetic (okay, so this one’s a stretch). Hardly an exhaustive understanding, but it’s still more than I know about some of my actual acquaintances.
The point of impact involved nothing more than the physical swap, a few breathless words (running late, I’d come at a run), a wave… It was fleeting, in other words, which, following the barrage of communication, felt slightly confusing but ultimately thrilling, and kind of sweet.
There’ve been several others. There was TV Girl, a transaction that involved my showing up at 11 a.m. to find her in the middle of comforting a teary roommate over a recently forfeited boyfriend, wine glasses fully engaged. We chatted awhile, sharing our thoughts on the neighborhood, and as I got up to leave, the roommate said something along the lines of, “Hey, if you ever wanna hang out, get a beer w/ us…” I think we knew nothing would come of it, that this wasn’t the start of some fated friendship, but as I hugged my purchase to my chest and clambered down the stairs, I felt energized by the goodwill—and the novelty—of the previous ten minutes.
There was Chandelier Man, who, incidentally, didn’t live far from TV Girl. (Would craigslist bring them together, too?) My then-boyfriend and I walked into his tree-framed brownstone to find a small museum’s worth of antique furnishings: lighting fixtures spanning every decade of the last century, various paintings, sculpture, glassworks… The fireplace was aglow, and a wiry cat slinked around my ankles.
Chandelier Man offered us tea, which we sipped over small talk. We heard the story behind our acquisition (the 1920s deco piece was rescued from a Long Island salvage yard), and after fifteen minutes or so, we thanked and said goodbye to a gentleman—poised, warm, almost fatherly—we would in all likelihood never see again. Because really, what would be the grounds? Newly emergent Depression Glass Lust? A yet unrecognized proclivity for Rodin replicas? More tea?
Again, I left feeling vaguely intoxicated.
The list goes on. There was TV Stand Girl, Bookcase Guy, Hula Skirt Girl… And then there were the few things I myself unloaded, making me Cheap IKEA Chair Girl, Bike Lock & Helmet Girl, and Kitchen-Aid Mixer Girl. In each case, a meaningful relationship developed—meaningful in an ephemeral, invigorating, faintly surprising way.
The meaning stems from a particular way of relating. Unlike a straightforward back-and-forth with a gas station attendant, deli guy, or a Times Square-seeking tourist, your average craigslist transaction occurs in parts. Contact is initiated, followed by some amount of dialogue, and it’s this “instant history” that brings gravity to the physical exchange once it takes place minutes, hours, or days later. If Lucite Nightstand Man or Vintage Ice-Crusher Lady opens his or her home to you, more weight still. And because this succession—seek out, plan, connect, let go—is not typical of conventional relationships, it can be disorienting. (”Goodbye forever? Really? After I’ve seen your family portraits? After you’ve introduced me to your dog?”) But this doesn’t mean it’s not the right way to proceed.
If you think about it, across media, the focus tends to be on a) maintaining positive relationships, or b) ending negative ones. But what about those relationships that are fruitful for a period of time yet probably not worth preserving for the long haul? What do the magazine articles, the talk show programs, and the self-help books say about them? Not much.
Craigslist affinities aside, I’ve had several such relationships over the years, and I’ve tended to prolong them unduly. Certain friendships and loves have fallen prey, with concern over hurt feelings, confusion in the wake of intimacy, or a general fear of change forcing a deciduous alliance into an evergreen mold. But how refreshing, the notion of ending authentically, with a farewell hug and a string of kind parting words. More often than not, I think we know when to say when. It’s following up that’s tough.
I recently followed up—or, well, for the most part—with a couple of coworkers I was about to leave for another job. These were people I’d chatted, laughed, and whined with over afternoon coffee breaks, people I cared for but never considered to be more than work buddies. And as I prepared to begin a new job elsewhere, some part of me recognized that our time had passed. Sure, we still swapped phone numbers and personal email addresses and let’s-do-this’s, but there was a sense of knowingness in the air. This is it.
This exhilaration, I now realize, comes from the awareness that a person has served his or her purpose in your life. It comes with being in command of yourself, and it comes with moving on. Life is too short to cling to expired relationships.
Thanks for the lesson, Craig.