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I wore a watch until grad school, when it became annoying to have something scraping across the table while I wrote on deadline. By then I had also started carrying an iPod and mobile phone, so using a timepiece seemed redundant. This is the last watch I bought, from a revolving case of Timex watches in a drugstore. I used it through college and it is now stored in the same box as my wedding rings.

Since becoming an expat, I’ve started measuring time in relationships. You meet someone, you become good friends, and then they leave the country. I think of months in terms of the people I spent them with. Friendships with the people I met in the US are also constantly in flux—some grow stronger despite the distance, some ebb away and others end unceremoniously. I’ve learned that a relationship that took years to build can be irrevocably damaged in a matter of months, even minutes, by a few thoughtless actions and words. I’ve also learned that sometimes a bond is formed in minutes that lasts for years, and stays strong across oceans and continents. 

In college I had a bad habit of arriving to classes and appointments five to 10 minutes late. All of us had twice-monthly conferences with our seminar instructors to talk about our coursework and, sometimes, just chat about life. One of my favorite professors was Marvin, who taught psychology. One afternoon, I rushed in for our conference 10 minutes after it was supposed to start, apologizing profusely. Marvin said, “It’s okay. It’s your choice to be late.”

“No, it’s just that I’m so fatigued and I can’t seem to catch up,” I insisted. I was tired. This was after my second stint in a psychiatric ward for depression during my junior year, and I was juggling partial hospitalization sessions, a full course load and my extracurricular activities, which I refused to give up.

Marvin replied that he was not angry and understood how exhausted I was, but by the end of the semester, the chunks of conference time I missed would have added up to one entire session.

“It’s not about whether this upsets me, because it doesn’t. It’s up to you whether you want to have that conference with me or rest,” he said. That really struck me.

For much of that year, it felt as if I was being buffeted by something I had no control over. It was so hard just waking up and functioning during the day. But I valued my conversations with Marvin and I realized that all I needed to do to make the most out of our teaching/mentoring relationship was be on time. It was as easy as that.

I learned so much from Marvin in the classes I took with him, but the most important lesson was that the deepest relationships can hinge on something as small as getting out of the door 10 minutes earlier than you usually do… or a cup of coffee that turns into a five hour long conversation, a kind email to someone who feels vulnerable, or even just popping into the same cafe a few times a week. And sometimes good-byes mean nothing at all, when a relationship can pick up again from where it paused, like a watch with a fresh battery.

This post was inspired by a prompt for Shimelle Laine’s Learn Something New Every Day.