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I’ve recently come to understand the richness encased in the seemingly small and insignificant moments that too often go unnoticed. Reading a good book, meeting a new friend, working in the garden, or listening to the breeze rustling the leaves of surrounding trees are all so special. Feeling the warmth of warm sunshine on your face or gazing at thousands stars on a warm summer night all help shape our lives and sculpt our souls.

Many of these moments have been spent with people whose life journeys have intertwined with ours. They sprinkle our souls with grace, friendship, and love. Whether they be our parents or relatives, friends from past to present, or teachers who helped guide us, they’ve all made significant contributions to who we are today.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with two groups of friends from my distant past.

Back To High School Days

The first was an impromptu gathering of seven high school chums, many of whom who had not seen each other in decades. We recalled and shared many great stories over a couple of cocktails, bringing back memories that had been shelved away in the deep recesses of our minds for years. Back in the day, these little moments didn’t seem very significant, but in retrospect, they helped influence, shape, and mold all of us into who we are today.

Though our physical attributes have changed–more wrinkles, larger bellies, graying hair (or lack of hair)–the stories and deep connections remain. It always surprises me how old friends can pick up right where they left off years ago without pretense or show. That terrible fake ID that worked, summer days playing roulette in a friends basement, and the Easter weekend spent in a Florida detention center brought laughs and memories back.

We recalled people we dated, teachers who steered our lives in certain directions, and common friends, both living and deceased. It was with fondness and sadness that we bid each other farewell, swapping contact information, and promising to not wait so long next time.

The Benefits of Friends

I recently came across a list of common regrets that researchers compiled from interviewing people towards the end of their lives. One of these was Did Not Stay in Touch with Friends. In the later days and weeks of a person’s life, it becomes clear that love and relationships is what matters.

Having friends becomes particularly important as we age. Without friends many of us withdraw into our own daily routines, rituals, and comforts, resorting to habitual behavior that infrequently changes. Interacting with friends is the best antidote to combat this.

Friendships are good for our health. They provide conversation, help us laugh and celebrate the good times, while providing support and encouragement during challenging times. The companionship offered by friends is invaluable.

Friendships give us a sense of belonging to something special. They give us purpose and something to look forward to, be it a telephone call, a warm embrace, or meaningful conversation. Friendships boost our self confidence and self-worth, helping us look forward to days ahead spent together.

Friendships can help us cope with huge, life-changing events such as divorce, serious illness, job loss, or the loss of a loved one. Simply being able to voice your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with another is therapeutic and effectively reduces our internal strife and stress.

However, friendships do not just happen. They take an investment of time and energy. We must be willing to be vulnerable, honest, and share who we really are in order to achieve meaningful depth in friendships. Friendship is a two-way street–we need to be willing to give of our time and resources–and not just be a recipient of friendship. We need to approach friendships with integrity, by honoring and respecting others’ rights to privacy and opinion, while not be judgemental or critical of what is shared.

Many of us today can count on one hand the number of people we consider to be a true friend. Some of us are lucky to count just one.

Ollie

The second gathering was a four day camp-out in remembrance of a dear friend who passed away recently. Ollie was not only a celebrated teacher in Anchorage, but also a teacher and mentor of loving and living life to its fullest.

Ollie was constantly learning and sharing his excitement and passion of the natural world with everyone he met. Through him, many of us learned about winter ecology, plant and bird identification, geology, cross country skiing, camping, wilderness travel, and fishing.

Ollie lived large. He was at his best when outdoors exploring, engaged in the moment, and actively doing what he loved most: learning about the natural environment. He was passionate about life, never being satisfied with just book learning or talking about his dreams, but rather insisting on doing and applying what he knew. He shared stories of his experiences with others in an impassioned and zealous manner, drawing others into his spirited narrative of his ventures.

He loved Alaska, and engaged himself fully during the summer months with fishing, rafting the wild untamed rivers, and hunting wild game. I was fortunate to have shared time with him on a few of his wilderness excursions. Without Ollie in my life, I never would have experienced seeing thousands of wild Pacific walrus on Round Island, grizzly bears catching leaping red salmon at Brooks Falls, or hooking mammoth rainbow trout while rafting Alaskan rivers only reachable by float plane. Once, while cross-county skiing roped-up on the glacial valleys of Mt. Denali, I fell partially through a snow-covered crevasse, narrowly avoiding mishap. A close call? Yes. But the stories and memories will last a lifetime.

The Small Moments

But the parts I am fondest of are the small, seemingly inconsequential moments with Ollie that were special. Sitting around campfires laughing, drinking strong coffee, while sharing stories and swapping tales was incredibly special. Being fully present, absorbing the sounds, sights, and feel of the natural world around us, was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Stories from the day’s travels, talking about the “big one” that got away, the fresh print of the grizzly found on the river’s shoreline, or the bull moose that crossed less than 100 yards in front of us filled the air.

It was the impassioned manner in which he shared his experiences that made Ollie fun to be with. He made everything sound so captivating and exciting. Although I had been along on the same day’s journey with him, I just didn’t express the day with the same zest and zeal as he did. To be with Ollie was to experience enthusiasm, passion, and savor life to the fullest. He exhibited a richness and love of life in every waking moment.

To this day I have a phone message he left when he was in the hospital, days away from receiving heart surgery. I listen to it now and then just to hear his voice. His explained that his wife had “taken off” with his pants to wash them, pants which incidentally had his cell phone in the pocket. He chuckles, incredulous that she was going to leave him in the hospital with no pants to wear, resolving to pull a practical joke on her at a later date.

“What do you need pants for?” she said. “You’re not going anywhere.”

Little did anyone know how true a statement that would be.

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