Like many others, I have been active in online communities for a long time now. I started out with various writers’ “bulletin board” sites, where those of us who dreamed of becoming published met to talk about writing, learn about writing, critique each others’ stories, and just plain chat. Over the years, these sites tended to grow, to shrink, sometimes to blow up.
Early on, I ‘met’ a writer named Brent Olson. Unlike most of us on that website, he was already published. Many times. He wrote a regular newspaper column called Independently Speaking, a humorous look at the perils and perplexities of life as a farmer and father and friend in Minnesota. He also wrote short stories and, eventually, novels, which I highly recommend. He was also one of the first people to ever comment favorably on my own writing. Which, of course, made me like him right off the bat.
We have stayed in touch, on and off, for well over twenty years now. We ‘see’ each other on Facebook regularly. I still read his column, he was gracious enough to review my book on Amazon. I’ve seen photos of his wife and grandkids, he’s seen photos of my husband and grandkids, we have a lot in common. So, I was delighted when he contacted me to say that he and wife Robin were coming through North Carolina on their way to Charleston and was there any chance we might finally meet? I thought it was a great idea and so Matt and I drove out to Asheville last Sunday, on a beautiful and sunny day, and met Brent and Robin for lunch at Tupelo Honey Café.
Well, we all four hit it off and had a great time talking. I was sorry, when we parted, to reflect that we’ll probably never meet face to face ever again. Minnesota is a long drive from Sherrills Ford, North Carolina. After all, how often can you say you’ve been friends with someone for over 20 years with never a cross word or even a misunderstanding? I imagine we would have continued to stay ‘friends’ even if we never actually met, but it feels great that we finally did. He and Robin were delightful, and I know that now when I read Brent’s words, I’ll hear his voice. He’s no longer someone I ‘know’. He’s someone I know.
I recently had close contact with another Friend-on-Facebook that I’ve known for quite some time online. Janice Phelps Williams is an artist whose beautiful work I’ve often admired. We’ve chatted on and off over the years and I had ordered one of her adult coloring books, Fantastical Dwellings. Recently, she posted a picture of a painting she’d done. It was a colorful swirl of circles and shapes created by thousands of tiny dots, titled “40,917 in Ohio”. As she explained in her post, “…I wanted to do a piece on losses from Covid-19. Thinking big, I thought: ‘I'll do one dot for everyone in the world estimated to have died of Covid!" That was not realistic. ‘Maybe, just maybe, I could do one piece with a dot for everyone in Ohio who died of Covid-19.’ That was 40,917 as of January 2023. It was a very mindful sort of piece to work on, because I thought about each life, so brief in the entire history of humanity (as all of our lives are), as brief as my motion to make one dot. But so very important to those who knew and loved that person. So, a feeling of inconsequential in the big scheme of human history, but a severe loss to that person's loving circle, and it was a practice in seeing two contrasting things at once, which is something that interests me on various levels. Such as holding joy and sorrow both at the same time.”
Janice’s finished piece, and her story of how she came to do it, and particularly, the line “Holding joy and sorrow both at the same time” really touched me. My sister Kim died of Covid 19 in March of 2021. Kim was a beautiful person who’d had many difficulties in her life, yet still lived with joy. In fact, I have one particular piece of art she’d done, full of colors and circles that complemented Janice’s piece. I messaged Janice, showed her Kim’s painting, and asked if I could buy a print of her 40,917 in Ohio painting. Instead, she sent it to me for free, and told me of her own sister’s death, of Alzheimer’s. Suddenly, Janice and I were more than Facebook acquaintances. We now have a dot where our hearts meet. I have both pictures on the wall above my desk, where I sit right now. They both fill me with joy, despite the sorrow.
I sometimes think I live in a rather narrow world. The people I generally see are mostly family members, a few close friends, and the women I gather with at Book Club or Writers’ Group. And yet, I’m also aware that I have a much wider circle of friends through the internet. I get to see photos of my cousins’ grandbabies, I keep in touch with people I knew in high school, and total strangers whose stories I follow. There’s a connectedness that’s real, perhaps more real than those acquaintances whom I see on the street or in the store but exchange little more than “How are you doing?” and “Nice to see you.” The people who touch our lives might forever be out of actual ‘touch’, but they can make a huge impression anyway. It’s GREAT to meet them in real life, but the friendship is still real, whether I ever meet them or not.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
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