Finding comfort in the friendships of the past

Time slows down in COVID-affected times and becomes elastic. What happened decades ago feels like yesterday and what happened last week feels like a month ago.

The future is unknowable, hidden by murkiness, dictated by where the virus travels. We cannot plan ahead and so find ourselves musing on the past and contemplating reconnecting with old friends.

Reconnecting with friends.Credit:Dyson

Child and adolescent psychologist Fiona O’Connor says there will be mixed motivations for seeking to re-establish old relationships: “Loneliness can be a real driver, particularly for single households and those not connected in local communities. Memories of loneliness can also attach themselves to our thoughts in lockdown, making us have to cope with current and past feelings of loneliness.

“This makes us reach out to others associated with that earlier experience. Boredom, curiosity and having the space to reflect on our lives are also drivers to reconnect.”

I rang an old friend out of the blue, from university French classes, decades ago. On the phone, after all these years, it was as if we had just finished a class and headed to the cafe. Sure, the topics of conversation had changed, no longer about funny things in class or weekend plans but rather about parenthood, but otherwise we were the same, our connection as strong as ever.

Friends have tracked each other down during the pandemic.Credit:Jamie Brown

Coincidentally, three days after renewing contact with that friend, another dear friend, from law school days, sent an email to my place of work.

The subject of the email was “Melissa”. It began: “I am an old friend (unfortunately now time and age) of Melissa’s and have…been trying to find a way to contact her for way too long now…”

We had not seen each other for 12 years and what followed was a delightful exchange of emails, filling in the events of the intervening years, while the affectionate informality of the emails revealed our underlying friendship was undiminished by the passing years.

We sometimes think that as the years roll on, there is a barrier, almost physical in nature, like a heavy wooden door, that divides our past from the present and having shut, must not be reopened.

Perhaps we believe that the past cannot be revisited without destroying idealised memories. Perhaps we feel that there must have been a reason that a friendship that once blazed brightly fell into silence. Whatever the reason, we often fear to travel beyond that heavy wooden door.

It’s true that some friendships, once fractured, should not be restored.

But there are other friendships where the silence is due only to the fact that the parties have moved in different directions and out of range. The connection, never broken, lies dormant, waiting only for one party to reach out across time for its battery to recharge and its machinery to shudder back to life.

In these days when our physical world is limited and the future cannot be planned, I find myself roaming more and more over the fertile fields of the past, catching on the wind the laughing voices of people I once knew well.

I am not so cautious of that heavy door that divides our past from our present. Life is short.

I heave it open and scan the horizon for happy memories and those who featured in them and send out a call in their direction.

Characteristic of responses to doing so, is this one from an old friend I reconnected with in 2020 after Melbourne’s second lockdown: “Oh wow, how fantastic to get your message. Goodness, you’ve taken me back to a long time ago, those carefree years at university. We had such fun…”

It’s not a bad pursuit in these lockdowned days to gather in old friends lost upon the byways of our lives. It feels significant. It harmonises our past with our present. But more than that, and in these times it is important, it might just make someone happy.

Melissa Coburn is a Melbourne writer.

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