I had someone ask me that during my first month at college. It was a sentence I was appalled by and came to dread but eventually found hilarious. Ironically so. This first time I replied that Alaska is a huge state geographically, I live on a remote island and the idea of me knowing everyone in the state was ridiculous. (I usually fold my fist up like the above picture and show that Barrow is Minnesota and Kodiak is central Texas.) Looking back, I probably sounded like an arrogant know it all. Which they probably expected. After all, they were at a party in a Harvard dorm, I was a Harvard student and they went to BC.
Whoever it was quite cheerfully asked if I knew so-and-so who was attending BC as well. I figured this guy was just some drunk looking for an excuse to hit on me.
So I tried to brush him off with another pompous response – about how I seriously doubted I would know anyone that he did. After all, I thought to myself, what did I have in common with a drunk guy from a Safety School. (I know. I was young, also drunk and quite an idiot still.) But he persisted and finally told me the person’s name. Asking again “Do you know her?”
Of course I did. We had gone to fine arts camp together all through high school. Every summer for three years. (I didn’t go my fourth year. I started Harvard two months early. But I knew she had and I was bummed that I hadn’t seen her.) Crazy. Suddenly I had to be polite to this guy. He actually did know someone that I knew. Someone that I liked. Who I considered a good friend. And an amazing musician to boot!!
What were the odds? I was 5,000 miles from home. Intentionally mind you. I wanted to be as far away as possible. I had arrived at Logan airport, completely sleep deprived after connecting in Anchorage and O’Hare, ecstatic that I had left home behind me and was ready to start fresh. And here was someone telling me that my life had followed me to Boston. Seriously?!? How could this happen? I mean it was good – a chance to catch up with a friend, but I thought I had left Alaska behind and was on to New Things.
As occurrences like these continued with alarming regularity over the next few months and then years, my studies in psychology helped me to understand why. Yes, Alaska is a huge state. But we really don’t have a lot of people. We beat out all the states for smallest population except Vermont and Wyoming. Woohoo!! That’s it. Unless you want to start getting into territories and the District of Columbia, Alaska is the third runner up in the we-have-less-people-than-you-do competition.
Another important fact was that the people that I kept running into tended to fall into specific groups. We had been in a play together. Or their computer class had been pen pals with our computer class. (This was in the EARLY days of email when it all seemed just a bit like magic.) We had been musicians together, or been to the same youth leadership conventions, or had attended seminars on some topic of interest we had in common. We did the same stuff! We joined the same types of things.
When we are young, our friendships tend to be based on close proximity. Who lives next door and who are parents’ friends are for example. This doesn’t really change as we age. Proximity is still one of the most important factors in choosing our friends. What does change is how we become exposed to them. We create our own proximity in the choices we make.
I was a joiner. I didn’t make friends easily because I am an extremely introverted person. In order to meet people I joined up. Clubs, organizations, groups of all kinds – especially artistic and musical, but also leadership and grade based things – I showed up and was the go-to person for everything from fundraising to setting up lights to memorizing lines. You name it, I got involved. I even tried, in spite of a lifelong case of terminal clumsiness, to play baseball in elementary school and bowled in a youth league during both Junior High and part of High School. In short, I ran into a lot of people because I had a LOT of avocations and we shared one of them.
Then there were the military connections. One of their parents, likw my dad, was in the Coast Guard, (or maybe Navy), we’d been stationed on the same base at some point and had played together or been in a club of some kind together. Those people came from many places – not just Alaska – although my dad had managed three of his tours of duty in Valdez, Ketchikan and Kodiak during my functional memories. Some of them I knew from Girl Scouts or they were elementary school buddies that became pen pals whom I hadn’t seen since those early tours of duty. I had a LOT of pen pals and I wrote them religiously. So, it wasn’t all that strange that I would run into people I knew in a coastal city. The Coast Guard has an active presence all along the American coastline.
It has never been unusual for me to walk through the Anchorage airport when I travel and run into someone that I know. And the older I get, the more people I know, and the more often it happens. I knew that from travelling around the state to various things during upper elementary and again during high school. I expected it in Anchorage. But not in Boston. It was weird. Wrong. It gave me a strange, unsettled feeling that I wasn’t sure what to do with. But gradually that turned into a sensation of home and joy.
Here was someone who understood. Here was another person who travelled for a day and a half over 3 or 4 flights to get to this part of the country completely exhausted. Someone else who had to remember not to get out of bed at eight in the morning and call home because it was 4am there and that is a terrible thing to do unless you are dying or in the hospital (said my mother the third time I did it – oops). Who knew what it was like to live in a state that covers 7 temperate zones but which everyone else thinks is just always cold. (I live in a rainforest for heaven’s sake!! We have SEASONS!!! Granted they are rain, fog, monsoon and slush – but they are seasons.)
It was good to know that there were others who had to deal with ridiculous questions. People who could say with a serious face “Yes, I live in an igloo. Everyone does.” While busting up laughing inside. Other souls who knew what the words banya, snowmachine and potlatch mean. And could tell you which part of the state they came from and understand that when planes didn’t fly it was a normal thing. Individuals who get that there is more than one type of salmon, they each taste different and none of them come from a farm. (Eew!)
So I progressed. It became a good thing. Almost a badge of honor. “Yeah. I’m from Alaska.” “Hey, I know someone from Alaska. Do you know them?” “Probably. What’s their name?”