Rivers and Roads

Most college students have their favorite study place. For some, it’s the library, surrounded by the sources and books they will ultimately need for their assignments. For other’s it’s their dormitory. Whether in the lobby, where there are most likely, tables and chairs- if you’re very lucky couches- or their dorm room itself. For the bulk of my college, the most popular study spot was the campus coffee shop, Common Grounds.

Although, I found out quickly that Common Grounds would not be my place. There were too many people I knew, and subsequently, too many distractions. Actually, this was the problem with any place on campus. Conversations and catching-up often derailed my entire attempt at being productive and staying ahead of the curve. I needed to relegate myself to a place where I could be anonymous. A place where I was a face amongst many. 

I feel silly now, saying where I got the bulk of my required reading, big papers, and test prep done. I would walk off-campus to the nearest McDonald’s. 

It was like a paradise. I would occupy the same booth nearly every time. I had the same order, a large black coffee and an ice water. What I love about McDonald’s coffee is that its flavor is not obtrusive, and there are free refills, which I took full advantage of when I would study. I also became pretty familiar with the regular crowd. I would see the same employees and managers, to a point where I no longer had to order. They would see me walking through the parking lot, and already be pouring my coffee. I would also see many of the same patrons. 

There were two people though who caught my eye. One was an older Caucasian gentleman. He always wore the same bomber jacket, with a polo underneath. He would sit one booth over from mine, and he always had a mystery novel he was reading. Either something from Clancy, Patterson, or Sanford. He also wore a hat that read “Korea Veteran,” and he wore it with humility. 

The other man who caught my attention was an older Asian man, who appeared marginally younger than the other man. He often wore dark blue slacks, with a tucked-in dress shirt. He wore glasses, and a light jacket. He would get his regular table, with a view of the window, and he would just watch the world pass by, as he drank his decaf coffee. He did what my grandma would always do, and he would take the lid off the cup to let it cool down, so he could sip at his leisure. He also wore a hat, which read the same words, “Korea Veteran.” 

Different hats and designs. Different people, from different backgrounds. Two men who lived through the same war, and experienced a similar hell, and lived to tell about it. 

One day, as I half-heartedly worked on a paper about a topic I cared little about, I saw mystery-novel man get up, ready to head out for the day, but he stopped. Rather than make the quick getaway he normally made, he walked over to the other Korea Vet, and shook the man’s hand, thanking him for his service and dedication to their country. 

I couldn’t help but do what my mom always advised against – I eavesdropped on their conversation. 

I heard about their childhoods, their growing up and adolescent years, and how they both enlisted as soon as possible. I heard them share stories about basic training, as well as friends they lost. With previously nothing bonding these men, they talked like old friends. Because in some sense, they already were. 

Class was the only thing that could pull me away from these two. With no more absences allowed before being penalized, I knew that I had to leave. I just hoped I would see them again someday. Although, things don’t always work out that neatly.  

I finished out the year, and went back to that McDonald’s often, but at different times, due to a changing schedule. I saw a different crowd than the group I saw previously. And before long I had forgotten about the two war veterans, consumed by the life and school right in front of me. So, it goes. 

As senior year was coming to a close, and homework was hitting a high point as far as inflow of assignments were concerned, I ambled over to the McDonald’s. I needed a space to work on my final two papers of my college career, and I needed coffee, a lot of coffee. 

I sat down with a steaming cup, pulled out my laptop and books, and started working. Although for some reason, I stopped and looked up for a moment and scanned the room. I’m naturally a people watcher, which means I like to survey a room and just see the different kinds of individuals present. It’s often a fun activity for airports, churches, and supermarkets. 

Upon my initial scan of the room I saw nothing too exciting, and as I began to lower my head to get back into writing, I saw something that made me do a double take. 

It was the two war vets, drinking coffee and laughing together. It had been three years since their initial meeting, and now they looked like the best of friends. I couldn’t help but smile at the beauty and innocence of this friendship, born out of a paradoxically different and similar experience in Korea, 60 years prior.

I couldn’t help but believe my friends and I would be the same way when we were older; still meeting, still laughing, and still loving each other in the way only friends can. Loving each other through the stupid things we have said, the mistakes we have made, the distance between our homes and in-between the time since we last saw each other. 

Friendship is a funny thing. It’s two people choosing to live life together, sharing the best and worst they have to offer.

We make friends for a lot of different reason. Some friends are made out of convenience. We’re in the same place at the same time. Other friends are made out of what they can offer us, and what we can offer them. It is very much a power play, as we make our way to the top.

For some friends, they met because of similarities. They liked the same movie or TV show, or they both do yoga, and they want to share the joy of those similarities with someone who understands. While others become friends because of shared experience. Things they can relate to, moments and memories they hold together, their lives are entangled and intertwined. 

People become friends for many different reasons, but what keeps them together is often much simpler; they have chosen to stick around. Not merely in proximity, because life’s direction is often away from the ones we love. Rather in spirit and heart, we choose to remain with that friend because we know the value of them.

I have a friend named, Trevor. We met because we lived in the same dormitory. He didn’t like me when we first met. For good reason, I must say. I was hard to like. But he ended up finding some good in me, and helping me to do the same. We become the best of friends. He’s my brother, and I’m his.

We bonded over many things. Faith. Literature and art. School. And a mutual love of strong coffee. But music was and is one of our strongest bonds. We would sit around after our morning classes and drink coffee and listen to music that demanded to be heard. Songs that told stories of love and loss. Pain and growth. Progress and formation. Music is a gateway to life in a way other forms of art cannot seem to fully capture.

One song we both loved, and still do enjoy, is a widely enjoyed song from the folk-pop band, The Head and the Heart, called “Rivers and Roads.” The first verse resonated with the both of us. Especially now that we live several states away;

A year from now we’ll all be gone
All our friends will move away
And they’re going to better places
But our friends will be gone away

Even before we graduated, Trevor and I know the importance of this song. We knew that life would lead us to many different places. Some might be very far away, and they have been. But the song continues on;

Rivers and roads
Rivers and roads
Rivers ’til I reach you [1]

Looking back now, I have wondered; what rivers connect people. What roads lead us back to our friends? And the answer I have found is quite simple.

I remember asking people when they graduated, secured a job, and were out of college long enough, “What’s hardest part of being out in the ‘real world’?” Every single one of them said maintaining friendships. Life happens. People get busy. Friendships drift away.

In the show, How I Met Your Mother, the protagonist, Ted remarks about his past friendships saying; “And that’s how it goes, kids. The friends, neighbors, drinking buddies, and partners in crime, you loved so much when you were young, as the years go by, you just lose touch… you will be shocked, kids, when you discover how easy it is in life to part ways with people forever. That’s why, when you find someone you want to keep around, you do something about it.“[2]

Things happen. Times change. Friendships come and go, and yet, I am not content with that reality. Friends like Trevor come into your life for one reason or another. And then time may physically separate them, but the responsibility falls on us to do something about.

Pastor Rick Warren says in his book, The Purpose Driven Life, “Community requires commitment.”[3] This is visible in the two men at McDonald’s. They became friends because of the war they had both experienced. However, they remained friends because they believed it was important; this person was someone worth their time, and worth their love. They were committed to making their friendship work. 

I have found that friendship can be so easily lost, to nothing more than just growing up and moving on. Some are lost and some are gained, but when you find a friend that matters, you do something about it.

Several years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I learned that the etymology of the word compassion means to “suffer with” or to be a “co-suffer.” Friendship in it’s truest sense is finding people who can relate to us, and us to them. It’s finding people who will partner with us in this world celebrating with us in our successes and lamenting our failures.

Friendship means finding someone who will suffer with us and everything beyond. And at the end of the day, the choice to remain friends will be the river that connects you two. That’s it. Choosing to stay. A commitment to community.

Recently Trevor called me and said he finally was ready to get a tattoo. He and I had talked for years about getting a tattoo of a coffee cup with the inscription below, “Rivers and Roads.” It brings together two of the things that laid the foundation of our friendship. Good coffee and good music, but even better friends.

Trevor and I have stayed close over the years. We may live in very different places, but we still talk regularly. We laugh like nothing ever changed. We see each other when we can, but that’s few and far between. But we are still friends, because when you find someone you want to keep around, you do something about it.

[1] The Head and the Heart, “Rivers and Roads.”

[2] Bob Saget, How I Met Your Mother, “Gary Blauman.”

[3]Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? (Philadelphia: Running Press Miniature Editions, 2003), 166.

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