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6 September 2023

Always Show Up to the Bat Mitzvah  (and other learnings from an inconvenient relationship)

Written by
Chantal Laurie Below

In January, Liz invited me to her youngest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, in Boston, over the summer, 3,000 miles away from where I live. The offer surprised and touched me given we talk infrequently (maybe once a year?) and text occasionally (once a quarter?). With the expense and chaos of life, if I couldn’t have ‘double dipped’ with a visit to my aging parents who live on nearby Cape Cod, I might have mindlessly declined the invite with effusive gratitude, spent the weekend carpooling and secretly purging my kids’ summer camp art projects, and missed out on one of the greatest experiences of my year.

Liz and I met at 15 years old in Thailand. In 1993, as two, privileged white girls (she from Manhattan, me an expat living in London), we separately signed up for the same six-week community service program through Global Routes. We taught English in a refugee camp and built a school in a remote village outside of Chiang Mai before basking in the sun on a beach in Ko Samet in our final days. 

I cringe now at us engaging fleetingly and naively with displaced Hmong peoples at that refugee camp, distributing small toys to wide-eyed toddlers to ease our conscience, and shudder to imagine the structural soundness of the building we crafted cement block by cement block. And, at 45 years old, I still have my threadbare Global Routes t-shirt because that summer introduced me to peers who craved depth and purpose (with healthy doses of humor) just like me. Being with teenagers who found reckoning with global injustice invigorating and who loved navigating unfamiliar beliefs and customs (like teaching duck-duck-goose to local kids without tapping heads) affirmed a part of me that previously existed in the shadows.

So many years later, I only have fleeting memories of my time with Liz that summer. I remember unadulterated juvenile joy when locating a Pizza Hut in Bangkok after a month of rice at every meal and our awkward, over-enunciation of sawatdee. Beyond that, it’s a bit of a blur, except this feeling of profound connection and a memory of wanting to sustain it.

Pre-email, Insta, and Snapchat, Liz and I wrote letters to stay in touch in our remaining high school years after that summer. At some point I visited her in New York en route to my New Jersey-based grandmother and we overlapped for a year in DC post-college and longer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She invited me into her Book Club where we convened monthly in the Sunset District over wine and potluck dinners with a group of similarly searching, empathic, comical women. I cried and danced hard at her Napa wedding, she traveled miles solo to come to mine. 

Just weeks after she gave birth to baby #2 in 2010, my husband, infant daughter, and I stopped by her Brookline apartment after our annual east coast family visit and, amid Melissa and Doug puzzles, talked about breastfeeding misery and unpacked her sage parenting advice of, ‘start as you intend to go on.’ Prior to her sister moving from Marin, a neighboring county to mine, Liz and I reliably convened over lunch and a hike when she came west for a visit.

Liz and I have always existed on the periphery of each other’s lives; we’ve never been classmates, neighbors, colleagues or fellow soccer moms. I neither know how she spends her days nor when she’s wrestling with a big parenting or work decision. Nonetheless, even after 30 years, we see these vacant nooks and crannies in one another that long to be filled with deepened insight around our purpose on this planet – and when we’re proximate to each other, we burrow in. 

This past June, after seeing Liz less and less over the recent years and the connective tissue between us thinning, I showed up at Temple Beth Zion for her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. I found myself awe struck – in that vast and transcendent way Keltner talks about – and overwhelmed. 

As music played, and friends and family members found their place in pews, and the Rabbi set the stage for hours of celebration and reflection, I started to realize how much colluded to get me here, at this moment, as a guest at this event – with Liz’s fifteen-year-old daughter (the same age Liz and I were when we met) radiate pride observing her younger sister read from the Torah – and, the unlikeliness of it all. There was a chance meeting for a short window as young teens 30 years ago on a different continent, then a bunch of effort and happenstance. On the one hand it’s inexplicable, and on the other, inevitable. Since young adulthood, Liz and I have felt seen by one another in our complexity. We’ve always wrestled with longings, mocked our shared intensity, and simultaneously wondered why we can’t just ‘chill the fuck out’ while also judging people who don’t wake up wondering about their lasting legacy. Short bursts of being together over the decades reinforced the rarity of feeling connected in our beauty and crazy, so we kept reaching out for each other. 

Fast forward, we’re part of a perfectly chaotic, intergenerational dancing of the horah and then dancing the Wobble with a gaggle of 12 and 13 year olds who, in their youth, don’t seem remotely concerned about their nagging Achilles tendonitis or hot flashes. Isn’t that amazing? 

Being at the Bat Mitzvah, this coming-of-age ritual which invites contemplation, allowed me to settle into stunned gratitude for my relationship with Liz. And, it reminded me that many of us have a Liz: it’s the meaningful relationship that isn’t designed to last and is often impractical to maintain. 

So often these relationships become too tenuous to endure or too random to sustain and we understandably let them languish and die. 

  • It’s the remarkable boss from early in our career who we swore we’d work for again but haven’t talked to in a decade.
  • It’s the client who inspired our creativity in unforeseen ways but disappeared at the end of the contract.
  • It’s the college study abroad friend who unleashed our sense of adventure but got forgotten in the return to regular campus life.
  • It’s the colleague with whom there’s effortless connection but effort required to connect given competing time zones so communication dwindles.

Some inconvenient relationships come to a natural end, others we intentionally decide we don’t have space for, or interest in, any longer. Others though, like my friendship with Liz, deserve to be revived or cultivated because when neglected, we lose something meaningful: the chance to be fulfilled, awed, or known.

At that Bat Mitzvah, I was reminded again that prioritizing the rare people with whom we have an indescribable connection (along with a damn good party) should always, always trump practicality and convenience. It’s what enriches our lives. And so, may we be the Liz who reaches out unexpectedly and presents a crazy idea – to start a business together, train for a marathon, meet for a weekend get-away, or catch up over Zoom on a dozen years of life – as a way to rekindle lost connection. Or, when the Liz in our lives calls – may we return the call promptly, say ‘yes’, and trust in the utter joy of showing up.

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