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Friday, December 19, 2014

Adding and Subtracting

It’s holiday card season, and I’ve up to my eyeballs in envelopes. My card list forces me to assess what has happened in the last year—the ways in which my circle of friends and family has changed. This year there are names I’m taking off the list—people who have died. Most years the list expands and contracts, changing shape from the form it took the previous year. This altered shape represents life itself: an ever-changing scene, like the fragments in a kaleidoscope—tiny movements creating new configurations.

I go through the list and edit: the 104-year-old matriarch gone, a baby born. I know it’s part of life. But I hate erasing a name from my list. It’s all on the computer, and with the click of a mouse, name and address are gone. Although removing names from my list is startlingly abrupt, I’ll never forget those who have passed. In the last nine days I learned that another two people I knew died. A cousin by marriage passed. She was extraordinary, sharp as a pin. She hung on long enough to celebrate her 103rd birthday, and two days later it was time for her to go. Our friends’ dad passed just last night.

I’ve been working on our cards for the last two weeks. Cards have arrived from overseas and from other parts of America. Two friends sent photos of new babies—babies I didn’t know existed. I guess a lot can change in a year. Subtracting names from my card list feels uncomfortable. But it’s also a weird feeling to realize that I don’t know that much about the lives of certain people on my card list. Should I feel glad that people still want the connection with me, even if it’s only once a year by card? Yes. But an announcement of a baby I didn’t know existed also highlights how infrequent our communication is. It makes me feel more distant from the senders, not closer.

Maybe this is a dilemma most of us face. How do we know when to prune our contacts list? I’d rather have a smaller number of real friends, not a giant number of acquaintances. Perhaps in the new year I’ll do a post on Dunbar’s Number. Dunbar wrote about the size of our tribes—the number of people to whom we can maintain a meaningful connection. Some of these cards depress me when they show how little contact I have with the senders, but other cards give me a boost. I know it took effort to address the envelope, to buy a stamp, and to mail it to me. I know I matter to those friends. Some have hand-written notes inside—a sign that someone took the extra time to write something personal to us. I’ll try to focus on those ones.

In an age when a lot of our communication is via computer, an actual card sent through the mail is a sweet gesture, a more personal touch, an old-fashioned and meaningful way to connect. This week we heard that our friends are expecting a baby next summer. I know that a year from now when I’m tinkering with my card list, I’ll add their baby’s name to the list. I may have to subtract other people from the list: elderly relatives or friends who have passed. It’s not easy. But it’s life. It’s hard to say goodbye to people. But maybe I can turn the losses into reminders to feel grateful for those who are here. I can’t stop change, but I can remember to appreciate fully the special connections I have with people …

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