Despite our best intentions, we all have friendships that have fallen by the wayside due to family and work obligations and, frankly, the prevalence of social media. That's why Wendy Helfenbaum decided to embark on a yearlong quest to reconnect—in person—with 50 kindred spirits.
I hate ironing and am hopeless at math. And yet, I find myself humming as I meticulously measure, cut and iron bits of vibrant batik fabric in my friend Marijke's sewing room.
"This is where the magic happens," she says at the sewing machine, deftly assembling my squares, triangles and strips into a perfect quilt block. Two hours ago, my greatest claim to sewing fame was stapling the hem of my son's pants. Now, I'm making a 50-square quilt representing the adventures I'm sharing with 50 people in celebration of my 50th birthday this October.
Longing for face-to-face interaction
Turning 49 made me take stock. I wanted to build stronger relationships with the people who enriched my life, and not just through social media updates. (I don't even have a Facebook account.) I was juggling a writing and translation business, a family and a home, and I had let my friendships slide. Something had to change.
Within days, I had populated a spreadsheet with the names of 50 people: former classmates, ex-colleagues and out-of-town girlfriends—most of whom lived far from my Montreal home. I emailed them all, explaining that I wanted to reconnect and share an adventure (especially anything involving travel and chocolate). I'd see them for an hour or a week—whatever time they could offer. I wanted to remind them that, cliché be damned, life really is short. You make a note to phone a friend and poof! Six months go by and you never make the call. My goal: To come back from each encounter refocused on what really matters—the people in my life.
Marijke got the ball rolling. Even though she lived just blocks away, our busy lives made it hard to connect. When I decided to create a quilt as a fitting memento of my Top 50 Project, Marijke, an accomplished quilter, agreed to help. We spent three giggly hours together. One experience down, 49 to go.
Confirmed and cancelled activities
After inviting everyone to "Book me, baby!" I waited for the confirmations to roll in. Marcy, the first person to reply, made contact within 10 minutes. We were thick as thieves in high school, but we quickly lost touch after graduation. "May 11! Lunch!" she wrote. Though I never remember where I put my keys, I did remember that May 11 was Marcy's birthday. Her decision to celebrate it with me—someone she'd seen only once since we were 17—delighted me.
There were more responses, an initial flurry of ‘Yay! What a great idea! Can't wait to see you!' replies. And then…life got in the way. Two months passed. Of the 30 keeners who had responded immediately, only three had committed. I followed up: "Consider this a loving kick in the rear to kick-start the party." My inbox was soon inundated with ideas, from taking a cooking class in New Orleans with my former boss Joan to free-falling in an indoor wind tunnel with my fearless friend Liliane.
Still, I waited for a few stragglers to chime in. "Your expectations are too high," said my sister. "Just because you want to reconnect with people doesn't mean they'll want to see you." Indeed, the lukewarm response from some—and the lack of response from a dozen others—surprised me. After suggesting a childhood friend and I meet in Kingston, Ont., for a concert by an artist we loved throughout our teens, I got a half-hearted "I'll think about it," followed by radio silence. Another friend cancelled on me twice.
That said, I've happily reconnected with several of my Top 50—my neighbour Patti, for example. When the weather's good, we chat endlessly on our front stairs while our kids play in the driveway. But when winter arrives, our friendship goes into hibernation. This year, we spent two blustery winter days at my parents' cottage watching the snow fall and sipping mint-chocolate tea—a simple joy. And when my dear friends Frank, Dina and their daughter, Maya, travelled from Mississauga, Ont., to the Laurentiansnto spend time with my family over Christmas, we spent an afternoon crafting reindeer out of birch tree branches.
Forging new connections
I quickly realized that my project was about not only rekindling connections but also forging new ones. My client Bernie and I had always been friendly, but after meeting over coffee, I now know the sound of her contagious laugh, the kind you show with your whole body. In one 90-minute date, we learned more about each other than we did in four years of emails.
I've confirmed another dozen adventures to take place over the next few months. My cousins proposed a weekend in Vermont, where, as children, we spent many deliriously happy summers. We'll revisit old haunts and finish with a hot-air balloon ride over the lake where we learned to water-ski. Nancy, a high school friend in Calgary, plans to meet me in New York City. And Beth, my first best friend from Grade 1, offered her Brooklyn, N.Y., home for my son's 10th- birthday trip.
Back in Marijke's sewing room, I'm stunned at how lovely my quilt is already. She suggests adding a border of squares, one for each friend to sign and date. The commemorative blocks I've designed so far—a replica of Bernie's glasses, a hot-air balloon, a reindeer on skis—remind me of how fortunate I am. Whether I make it through the entire Top 50 list or not, I feel a renewed sense of gratitude for my friendships.
The importance of face-to-face relationships
Failing to stay in touch with family and not giving friendships the time and effort they deserve are common regrets people have as they age, says Sandra Reich, licensed psychotherapist and clinical director of the Montreal Center for Anxiety and Depression. "What people care most about in their lives is who they love and who loves them," she says. "We're most satisfied when we're connected, and connection is an immunizer against depression."
If you find it hard to make the time, Reich suggests asking yourself whether your life reflects your values. If friends are last on your list of priorities, you'll never get around to cultivating those relationships. "Friendships are like gardens," she says. "They need to be taken care of or the weeds take over."
Rules of reconnection
Based on Wendy's experience, here's what you might expect as part of your own personal friendship project:
People don't change.
If you were always the one to make plans when you saw each other regularly, don't expect your friend to come up with ideas now.
People do change.
Though you and a childhood pal were once able to gab for hours, you may no longer have anything in common.
If the vibes between you and an old friend seem strained, sometimes it's not them—it's you. Less leisure time affords little patience for wafflers (friends who have arrived late or cancelled more than once). Prioritizing a friendship is a two-way street; otherwise, you're
just talking to yourself.
You can go five years without seeing someone and then pick up right where you left off. It's quite amazing, actually!
Three ways friends are great for your mental health
Personal relationships have a positive effect on our well-being and offer great rewards, says psychotherapist Sandra Reich. One-on-one connections can:
1. Boost happiness and relieve stress by allowing you to express emotion
"When you get together with people you enjoy spending time with, emotions get released through laughing or crying, and there's this incredible stress release for your body."
2. Encourage you to recognize your strengths and accept your weaknesses
"When we honestly share our experiences and challenges, most times a friend will
say, ‘Me, too!' That reduces shame and guilt. When facing a friend, you get another perspective on your life."
3. Help you deal with trauma and give you strength to bounce back
"Being with people we care about is a sort of litmus test. Are we loved? Are we able to express love? Do we have people to turn to in times of trouble? Face-to-face relationships remind you that people care."