I think it’s fair to say that, as you get older, it becomes harder to make friends easily. You might not keep all or even any of your childhood friends as your paths diverge, but most people have a period in their lives from their late teenage years and into their early twenties when they’re surrounded by like-minded individuals, often in an academic setting which provides a ready-made network for you to easily use to create connections with other people that can form into friendships which often form the bulk of the people we consider our friends. Once you enter the “real world” however, such ready-made networks very quickly vanish and the amount of people you add to that category narrows down to a trickle.
I discovered this when I moved to Ireland over a decade ago. It was the first time I had moved anywhere without having that ready-made social circle waiting for me on arrival. Previously, wherever I went I was part of a larger group of people in the exact same circumstances as myself. Didn’t matter if I just moved to boarding school an hour from home, to college five hundred miles away, or graduate school across the Atlantic. You met other people who were struggling with the exact same issues as you were. You made friends with classmates, dorm mates, roommates, etc. Some barely left their mark on you. Others stayed close friends even after you both moved on to do other things.
But when I moved to Ireland, I was starting a whole new stage of life. I finished my Masters degree. I got married. I was moving to a new country without any clear path set before me other than “get a job, be a grown up”. There were no pre-arranged social groupings of people to whom I could easily relate by virtue of our similar circumstances. All I had were my husband’s friends.
Now, they were great. Eventually they expanded to include the significant others of my husband’s friends. And some of those have gone on to become very close friends in their own right, whose presence I still value greatly. But it took a very long time before I felt like I belonged there socially on my own merits, as opposed to being a “hanger-on” (or, in the parlance us girlfriends adopted early on in our relationships the guys around us “gamer wives and gamer girlfriends”).
I was not a complete stranger to this phenomenon. The year before I moved to Ireland I was in Brussels studying for my Masters and it was my now-husband who was in that situation. He moved to Brussels to live with me but while I had my classes and my classmates and my internships and assignments, he didn’t have anyone other than the people I knew through my studies to whom I could introduce him. And unlike me, he had to contend with the additional barrier of a foreign language. Eventually he found his own way and made his own friends and got a job, but for a while I watched him go through the same process that I later went through myself.
So when I look back on the last decade, I can honestly say that I don’t think I have made very many close friends in Ireland outside of the network that has my husband as the common factor. All of my friends here, whether close or not, came about through this connection.
Today though, I want to celebrate a totally different type of friendship – the spontaneous kind that happens completely unexpectedly when you’re not even looking for it. I have been very privileged over the last number of years to encounter a small handful of people who fall into this category. Almost all of them are folks with whom I was vaguely acquainted back in my misspent youth (ie high school). After years of no communication we have unexpectedly bonded over new interests on social media, even though we have not seen each other face to face in more years than I would care to contemplate.
But one friend came about in a much more unusual manner. You may tease or laugh or call me crazy, but I am totally serious when I tell you that I made a friend online. I have since met her face to face and both of us were very relieved to have ascertained that the other person is not some sort of a serial axe murderer. We both joked about that, and about how unlikely it was for us to make such a connection given our respective introverted characters. And about how unlikely the whole relationship even was in the first place.
It was around sometime in 2013 when I found myself in an online community each sharing a like-minded obsession over the new Marvel TV show called Agents of SHIELD. Almost all of us were drawn there by the unlikely emergence of the impromptu character of Agent Coulson, who started with just a handful of lines and somehow managed to improvise his way into becoming the linchpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of the Avengers. And in the middle of all this enthusiasm for #CoulsonLives and #WelcomeToLevel7 hashtags, I came across J, also known under her artistic pseudonym ChaosNDisaster. I was chugging my way through a lot of fan art online. Most of it was easily forgettable. But one person kept repeatedly catching my eye. Her posts were always friendly in a warm sort of way and her creations were unusual. I enjoyed her bold graphic style and humour, her ability to cross over fandoms without making it tacky, and her sketches (sometimes done as gifts or as a requests) clearly showed talent. But what really entertained me endlessly were her artistic endeavours to spread her love of all things SHIELD to other media. Particularly food. Her creative efforts were so versatile that I couldn’t help but be impressed. There was the Halloween pumpkin. The Christmas cookies. The cupcakes. The ice cubes.
My geeky little heart, however, was sold on the SHIELD mugs. The original photo is no longer there but you can see one of them here with some SHIELD cake. I’ll admit I was a huge fan by that point and I really wanted one. Like, REALLY wanted one. I looked around at the official Marvel merchandise. Mugs eventually made an appearance but they were all branded with the Marvel logo which sort of spoiled the Agent-y look. They were not the mugs spotted in one of the Marvel shorts set in the MCU, as seen in the grip of Agent Sitwell (it would be a long time before fans found out he was a Hydra agent). And even then, the cost of shipping merchandise like that from the US to Ireland would make it an extravagance beyond reason.
But I reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaallly wanted one. So in an effort to broker a compromise between the shameless fangirl and my common sense, I decided to venture out of my comfort zone a bit and contact a complete stranger online to see if I could have one made for me. As an extra sop to my conscience, I told my husband that it could be my Christmas present that year for which he would have to do absolutely zero work.
It was, of course, a risky transaction. As most people will tell you, the Internet is full of people looking to cheat, lie, and steal. But ultimately, the most I stood to lose was a little bit of money and some dignity. We arranged a deal where I would send her money via PayPal to cover the cost of the materials and the shipping and she would send me a mug done up as I liked.
Well… she sent me a mug. And some chocolates. And pens. And buttons.
(And my husband, being the sadistic bastard that he likes to be sometimes, made me live up to my word and hid it from me for a whole month until Christmas eve.)
I suppose that could have been the end of it except that I then emailed her for a second request. It was a quick and rushed job. I am sure I offended her artistic sensibilities by not giving her enough time to get it just right, but I was kind of up against a deadline because I was pregnant and looking to share the news with my husband in some creative fashion.
I won’t go into the ins and outs of the backstory but the not-even-there-yet bump already had a nickname. Aside from my slightly fanatical devotion to the character of Hawkeye, I thought it was an entirely appropriate nickname as at the time I was reading Matt Fraction and David Aja’s comic book series. And a true comic book fan would know that it was a gender-neutral nickname. Hawkeye could be a Clint Barton or a Kate Bishop.
I didn’t know it at the time, but by inviting J to be a part of this little surprise, I was opening a door to an amazing friendship. Aside from producing a very short notice sketch, I got a narrative in return. We started exchanging stories. When I wasn’t living on the bathroom floor sick to my stomach or sleeping or regretting all my life choices that led to the oh-so-terribly-misnamed “morning” sickness, I was writing back and forth and getting to know this genuinely funny, interesting, quirky person full of endless creativity. In a strange way, the anonymity of email allowed us to be more open with each other than we would have ever been had we first met in person. There were no judgmental looks. No awkward pauses in conversation. The same sort of shield that lets trolls persecute and bully people online also allowed us to be completely honest and forthright with each other. We talked about our lives, our hobbies, our shared geeky interests.
Now, she still could have turned out to be some kind of crazy serial axe murderer. But we continued to take chances and last summer she decided to spend her holiday visiting Ireland. Now, I’m sure there’s some kind of joke you can make about what happens when to introverts get together. In fact, I think we cracked some of those jokes while desperately trying to break the ice of that initial meeting in front of the hotel and over dinner in a local pub. But we hit it off like a house on fire. And once you meet someone in person, I think its ok to stop calling them “your internet friend” and just call them “your friend”. So like that, J joined my circle of international friends that I felt privileged to be metaphorically close to. We chat regularly now. We exchange care packages consisting of obscene amounts of chocolate. We trade back and forth in terrible puns.
The story doesn’t end there though, and I am finally, finally (honest, I swear) getting around to the reason for this post. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that this blog has its genesis in my Instagram #100happydays challenge. Only instead of being a predominantly visual expression, I unintentionally turned it into a writer’s renaissance. I have a never-ending need to be creative, but with the additional pressures of parenthood, I was not finding the time to indulge in my hobbies. The on-the-go nature of photography with a smartphone and the teeming thoughts that suddenly wanted to burst forth from my head made this a much easier form of expression than knitting or beadweaving or any other from of crafting I had previously enjoyed which required a significant level of mental concentration.
For reasons that I can’t quite fathom, J found my posts sufficiently inspiring to do her own #100happydays challenge on Facebook. I’ll be honest, I’m always floored when I find out that something I said or did ends up having any kind of impact on another person. I just don’t tend to harbour enough confidence to casually assume that what I do has much relevance outside of my own life.
It was therefore a surprise this week to find a package landing on my desk with a Viennese return address. It is, after all, my turn to supply the chocolate and I am in arrears in making it to the post office. I was puzzled and I sat there looking at the box wondering “what is that girl up to now”? I assumed it was more chocolate. I did vaguely recall J raving about some creme egg version of my Austrian drug-of-choice (Rum-Kokos) so I was not terribly surprised by the selection of chocolate that was inside the box.
I was, however, completely floored and almost brought to tears by the little hardcover book under her note. This insane girl took the time and effort to download all of my original #100happydays photos and text and put it all in a really nice booklet. As a thank you.
No, my friend. You do not need to thank me for anything. It is I who has to thank you. Life is full of the unexpected, and it has been a privilege to have your friendship as one of those unexpected things.
And isn’t that, after all, the definition of friendship? When there are no thanks needed but they are freely given?