Thoughts on distance, from a veteran distancer

diver gives ok signA few weeks ago, I spent a weekend writing communications to you all about distance learning, about moving to working from home, and about Varsity ending. I had to find the words to tell you that you couldn’t be together, that those hoped-for nights out and late night chats probably wouldn’t happen, that you probably wouldn’t get the chance at May Ball to tell someone how you felt, that there was a good chance you wouldn’t be hugging your mates goodbye at the end of the year. For staff, I’d be telling you that project you cared about couldn’t happen, that workshop you’d planned was over, that you had to become the most creative and positive you’d ever been, even as you worked through your own sense of loss.

Of course none of that made it into the final cut, but I felt it acutely. I knew that the realisation would hit some full in the face, and others more gently, but many would feel an intense sense of grief, of loss of what could have been. Our close and personal face to face relationships were going to be challenged: our Marjon pride of always being there for you was under threat as we moved to long distance uncertainty.

Having spent 24 years in a long-distance relationship, and one with incredible uncertainty built-in, I thought in this post I might share some stuff I’ve learnt along the way.

So firstly – to set the scene. I met my husband when I was 18, in Namibia. He was a Zimbabwean diamond diver (which I admit has always slightly trumped my “marketing manager” job at parties). Over the last 23 years he’s travelled the world working, usually with barely any notice of when he’s going, and little certainty of when he’s returning. I live in a permanent state of uncertainty, with no ability to commit to anything that needs him more than about 48 hours in advance. (Wedding invitations are a nightmare; the words RSVP in gold-embossed lettering fill me with dread. I even had to politely email his boss to check if he might at some point actually turn up for our own wedding.)

So, uncertainty, and a relationship at distance: this state feels familiar to me. People have always asked me how on earth I cope, and answering that has made me realise I have mechanisms to protect myself. Perhaps they’ll help others, so here they are:

  1. Accept uncertainty, don’t fight it. You can plan for an event, but with a full realisation that it might not be as you wanted. With anything: holidays, meals with friends, birthday parties, Christmas, weekends away, I always have it clear in my mind it’s OK however it turns out, including if I have to do it on my own, or if it doesn’t happen at all. Scenario planning can quickly become a natural state for anyone. There might never be this exact chance again, I get that, but there will be something else. When the world is uncertain, you cannot aim for a perfect vision. Let that go.
  2. Appreciate the little things. As soon as you’re physically distanced from someone who you’re used to being close to, you start to realise what’s good. All those little irritants melt away, and it’s clear what actually matters to you. Your room being too small, or your flat mate never washing up, or your fingers going numb with cold on the library top floor become problems you’d love to have. Turning up to a drop-in sounds like an incredible luxury. Going for a coffee with a colleague = crazy days. It’s really worth noticing what you miss, not to feel down about it, but because it reminds you of what you appreciate in life, the things we all take for granted, and of what you want to do more of in your future life. It also reminds you of what you need to keep up, to keep yourself happy. Little corridor chats can be replaced by completely impromptu phone calls with no purpose, except connection. If you miss it, it matters to you, so it’s really important to be creative about ways to replace that feeling.
  3. Be there, even if you can’t be there. Loyalty and reliability become so important when you’re not physically present. That doesn’t mean, to me, being always on the end of the phone: that’s never been possible. It’s more fundamental than that – it’s just knowing that we’ve got each other’s backs. For Marjon, that means always appreciating and remembering that we all believe in the same thing, and we’re all working towards the same goal. We’re there for you – we’re there for each other – even if we’re not physically there. It’s actually a nice warm feeling to have. Just revel in it. And note point 4.
  4. Assume goodness. You have to start from trust. If I don’t hear from my husband for two weeks, I don’t assume he doesn’t want to contact me. I assume he can’t. If you send an email and hear nothing back, don’t assume they don’t want to. Assume they can’t. Perhaps they are in online meetings all day, perhaps they are struggling with their own mental health, perhaps they are dealing with angry children, or elderly neighbours, or are overwhelmed themselves with hundreds of emails stacking up. Perhaps they are sick. Don’t ever assume they don’t care. That way lies real loneliness. Incidentally, I’m overwhelmed by how well Marjon Values play to this right now. We really do trust in each other. It’s a really nice feeling to just notice and appreciate that.
  5. Appreciate technology, even when it’s not perfect. I recall being bowled over by this 1999 advert about text messaging which shows the emotion behind technology. I was 21, and this made me realise my long distance relationship could actually be fine, because heck, TECHNOLOGY! (It also, incidentally, made me want to go into marketing. Who wouldn’t?) Some of you might be going through a similar thought process. Can this really work? Is it really worth it? Can I maintain my love of learning, of my subject, of my classmates? The answer is yes. It’s time to appreciate technology. Love it! Find ways to test it, because everyone’s a willing guinea pig now. Having spent years communicating by letter or satellite phone, I know the ability to ping an instant message when you think of someone is pretty darned special.
  6. Finally, there’s also something to be said for recognising that changes in routine are really, really hard. When I’ve been on my own with the kids for a couple of months, and my husband comes home and asks where something is because he “left it on the side in October”, yes, I do have to bite my lip. Many of us will be feeling this now, living with people we haven’t lived with for some time, or so intensely, trying to work out if they were Always. This. Annoying. It’s worth remembering: You’re. Probably. Annoying. Too. I’m not saying this is easy. But a colleague whose dad was in the army once told me it was normal, and that made it all feel infinitely less catastrophic. It’ll pass. Having the odd strop with the people you love doesn’t mean in any way they are the most annoying people in the world, or you are. It just means the situation has changed, and change is hard, even when change is your constant.

So yes, this does feel hard, and, sadly, it’ll get harder as we move further through this crisis. People will have to face things they never thought they could. They’ll have to find strength they never thought they had. But somehow we’ll get through. We’ll feel collectively bashed and bruised, but the Marjon community is more than just buildings and labs and halls. Keep communicating, keep trusting, keep valuing what’s special, keep being there for each other. We can live with uncertainty. We can maintain our long distance relationship. It’s not only possible, it’s actually fine.

Still, can’t wait to see you on the other side for a coffee.

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