Real Imaginary Friends: Life and Death in Cyberspace
I sat back in my chair, stunned. Ruth passed away from cancer. It was a simple statement at the bottom of a comment section of her last post. Ruth and I had been writing buddies for NaNoWriMo in 2012. We exchanged comments on her blog or mine for the last few years and I kept up on her entries dealing with cancer treatment. I feel terribly sad that her voice, which was so distinctive, sometimes sharp, sometimes funny, will no longer be heard. I never met her, but she was my friend.
Last month, I met another blogger friend for coffee. I had to laugh when she said “You’re much nicer than you seem on your blog.” Distance. The distance between who we write ourselves as and who we are. If we do it right, that little first skip from cyberspace to reality is a short one. We’re able to shake off preconceptions and get on with the business of getting to know one another. If we obfuscate and seek to deceive, it becomes a terrible blind date where we take a circuitous route home to avoid being followed.
I’ve been fortunate in my cyberlife. I’ve met friends who love to read and write as much as I do, who encourage me when I’m really slogging through things. When I moved to Minneapolis years ago, leaving behind a stale job and relationship, I placed an ad with Yahoo online personals (a precursor to the current menagerie of dating websites), because I was too old for bar scenes and too introverted for networking events. I exchanged messages with a man who responded to the ad. After I scouted his address, ran his plates and notified all of my friends about who I was with and where we were going, we went on a date. Eventually, I married him. That’s how introverts do it, yo.
When I read comments on various forums, I am often amazed at how willingly people reveal themselves to be racist, misogynist, homicidal shitheads. They think that cyberspace is actual space between what they say and who they are, some sort of magical buffer zone. Whoever they are online, it’s never diametrically opposed to who they actually are offline. They just take pains to hide it better.
Alarms have only gone off a few times in my online dealings. I tried to buy some old computer hardware from Craigslist. The equipment was good, but the seller was creepy, even in a public space. I decided to go nowhere near the trunk of his car, lest I become an unwilling passenger. And I tried to remember exactly where his kidneys were located, should I need to incapacitate him in a pinch. Instead, I had to get his phone calls blocked, which was likely a bigger hassle than a kidney punch.
I’ve never viewed the internet as a place where I lived some other life. My online persona is merely an extension of me, one that at times is more nuanced or strident or intellectual or silly than what everyday life allows. The gap between online and offline is a puddle jump. People who know me are rarely surprised by what I write here and thus far, the people who meet me after connecting online rarely run away screaming.
When I talk to people who don’t use the internet socially, it feels like I’m talking about imaginary friends. They “uh-huh” and nod and feel slightly superior for their numerous fleshy friends. I could hardly explain why I would cry about a lady I’ve never met or why I feel a void where her voice once was. It would seem to them like crying over the demise of a fictional character.
But she was real, so let me tell you about my friend, Ruth. Better yet, I’ll let her speak for herself, through her comments:
I don’t believe happiness can be ‘caught’ but is often ‘stumbled upon’ unexpectedly. I think we have to be open to those moments when they catch us unawares. Happiness to me is having nothing to do except write, or go on a ‘photo safari’ with my partner. Even then, I’m not sure if that is happiness or contentment. I am perfectly happy to be content most of the time with some giddy moments of happiness thrown in to mix it up a little.
Success and failure are constructs we make. If you think you’ll succeed or you think you’ll fail, you’re right. Failure isn’t in my vocabulary any more. But that depends on how you define failure – if it means not living up to someone else’s definition of success then it isn’t a failure. And if you do fall short of your own expectations, but keep trying, then that isn’t a failure, either. And I never, ever, think of myself (or anyone else) as average – there’s no such thing. We are each unique with our own set of talents and quirks, and that’s what makes us special, not average.
I don’t know about ‘fitting in’, but I’ve always marched to my own drummer, even in high school in the early 60s when I was taking science classes and most of the other girls were taking language and arts. I’m sure there are some demographics I fit into, but the more you drill down from the broad categories of age, gender, occupation, the more people become unique to themselves.
And that’s what love is – a journey together into the unknown.
I think there comes a point in our lives when we realize our mortality. That’s the point when we ask ourselves if this is all there is. We either get depressed and accept that life is over for us, or we get off our butts and realize we still have a lot of living to do. I read somewhere that happiness is the journey, not the destination, and that we are so often too busy pursuing what we think is happiness to realize it’s right here with us.
I have learned that nothing is certain in this life and I have also learned that it’s up to me what I do with my time here. I choose to live as long as I am physically able, and to enjoy whatever time I have left. None of us know how long we have; we don’t know our expiration date.
Ruth Rainwater was here. And she was my friend.