I wrote this post in January 2016. I held on to it because it wasn’t done and it wasn’t clear and it seem like navel gazing but this is a blog, isn’t it, so let’s gaze.
On my first night on a recent trip to Seattle, I settled my jet lagged kittens into bed, washed my travel weary face, and braved the rain and a chatty Uber driver to meet an old friend and her new friends in a fancy-adults restaurant in Capitol Hill. Anyone who knows me well knows how very, very hard it was for me to muster the energy for such an outing. I had lipstick on for god’s sake. But she’s a special, wonderful, dear friend and her husband is a delight. Plus there was guacamole.
My friend Caitlin introduced me to all her lovely friends. And then they asked the conversationally appropriate ‘So how do you know Lane?’
Caitlin gave this really nice (and true) answer about us meeting in a group for women living abroad and having gone to a baby shower together in London and having dinner in a Thai restaurant in Oslo and us drinking micro brews in Michigan. But this was a convoluted answer to a simple question and I saw their quizzical faces and took it upon myself to preempt the follow-up questions.
We met online. I announced. On the internet. A message board. You know…the world wide web. That’s what she’s trying to say.
Interesting! said a young and bright eyed English woman, in the way where you’re not sure if they mean ‘interesting’ or ‘ew.’
Ohhhhh! exclaimed the gorgeous Brazilian woman across the table, I’ve never met anyone on the internet! Maybe I should try it!
Was she saying that to be polite? Was she secretly thinking ‘what kind of weirdos meet online and then have slumber parties in each other’s homes’? Maybe. But I answered her exclamation at it’s face value.
Yes, I told her as serious as I’ve ever been in my life. You should definitely try it.
There’s this idea in sociology of the ‘third place.’ It’s a term coined by Ray Oldenburg but the concept is old and familiar. The ‘first place’ is your home, the ‘second place’ is your workplace. But the third place is somewhere with more open, natural, creative communication and connection.
Even if you haven’t heard this phrase before, you probably already decided what your third place is before you finished reading the last sentence. Maybe it’s a coffee shop. Or your yoga studio. Your church, your university. In the past it could have been a bowling alley or barber shop or beauty parlor but get serious you are not in a bowling league and you wear earbuds in the salon because DUH, podcasts. But it’s just somewhere accessible, comfortable, accommodating.
People will argue that in recent decades these third places have declined. Because of technology and commute times and general lack of goodwill for our neighbors. And they are right, the numbers don’t lie, but it’s not all robot friends and zombie faces in front of a screen. I still see, know and use third places and I’d bet you do too.
I hang out in the kid’s play area at the library and see familiar faces holding their growing children. I made friends in a beloved Pilates studio last summer. I go work at a coffee shop sometimes where I chat to the other regulars also known as retired elderly men who also appreciate a good muffin.
But, alas, I move around a lot. And a certain number of months out of the year I can’t understand the literal words coming out of my neighbors mouths. Being nomadic and living in cultural isolation can be lonely. And even introverts can be social butterflies.
When I’m away, I may not have a set seat in my local coffee shop, no one is inviting me on play dates. But I need a spot to be. I need people. I have a third place that I love so well.
The internet is my third place.
I do, actually, have wonderful ‘real life’ friendships as well. You know, ‘real’ as in we met in 8th grade or we were in the same dorm or we sat together at Grad School orientation because everyone else seemed like a bunch of weirdos. But there’s something about the way you can communicate with someone online that makes that connection easier at times.
You get to cut through the small talk and avoid awkward silences. You can tell your story yourself instead of having to try to push your identity through the preconceptions of people who know you mom, worked with your sister or knew you in high school. Your physical characteristics, your fashion, your accent can all be parts of telling who you are, but they can also be barriers that distract from what you want people to know about you. You can be seen by someone without them having to see you at all.
When you’re online can cover topics that some people might be uncomfortable discussing in person with someone they haven’t known very long. You forget that you can be self-conscious about your laugh or your tendency towards moodiness. The physical distance between people and the buffer of the laptop screen can, perhaps at times, defying logic, make connecting with people much easier.
The places I’ve most comfortably inhabited on the internet of full of people, mostly women, who understand me in ways that my ‘real life’ friends might not.
The expat board where I met Caitlin has yielded numerous meaningful, long lasting friendships. These people understand the confusion of international marriages, the stress of long distance moves, how much you can miss root beer, the isolation of linguistic barriers while also appreciating the draw of the unknown, the special badge of honor you can convey on yourself for your expatriate status, the fear of settling down into a ‘normal life.’
The writing group that I joined at the invitation of one of my favorite bloggers is a comfortable place to be intellectual and weird and creative with a bunch of strong, female geniuses that I admire. Where you can share things you have thought and words you’ve written with expectation of thoughtful, measured and caring responses. Where you can be as nerdy as you actually are and feel totally normal about it.
Friends I’ve made from the comments of this very blog, who have helped me through the struggles of motherhood and have commiserated over the confusion of expatriation and repatriation. People who felt connected to me by my words and nothing else and who I now count among close friends.
Imagine a coffee shop, park bench, deli counter where you could so easily find these people.
I’m actually a great defender of the third place, of talking to strangers or neighbors just to make a small connection to someone in the tiny bubble of the world I inhabit. Curating relationships might be one of my personal talents, and I’m not discriminate about the origins of those relationships.
The way I need the friends that have known me all my life depends on
the way I need the friends I met online and have never seen in person
which connects me to those I’ve met online and then later hugged in my real physical arms
who in turn help me appreciate the people I’ve yet to meet.