Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My best friendships have had memorable beginnings. Some beginnings were almost unworldly — a chance encounter in a rail station, or following a voice heard singing in the dark on a summer night. Even the more prosaic beginnings bear a certain drama. Energy fills the moment. The connection is usually instantaneous. There is a sense of recognition — knowing again an old companion from a journey beyond the past.
The Dakota language forms its word for friendship out of its word for “with,” so that friendship equals “withness.” Good friends stay “with” me wherever I go, like birthmarks or tattoos. And for all the frustration and letdown I sometimes feel around them, I sense they are “with” me whatever I do — unconditionally. Most important, these are people in whose presence I’ve felt “with it,” with the flow of the universe, with all my soul.
Frankly, I’m addicted to long-term friendships. They offer the grounding force of commitment without making the demands a relationship makes. I love my friends, and yet set them free. The words “friend” and “free” come from a single etymological root. This kind of equal-to-equal love has been around a long, long time.
It’s free, it’s easy, it’s ancient.
And like many other things meeting that description, it’s not a product of sheer effort. The conscious mind can’t encompass it. It directs itself. It happens.
Recently I broke up with my girlfriend and I was hurt and lonely. I wrote a bunch of letters to old friends asking for help. I didn’t realize I was doing that — I thought I was “expressing my feelings.”
Two responded quickly. Carol Butler, the humanistic psychologist, wrote that our relationship “will always be special to me.”
Jackie, my old roommate, called from Miami, said, “I really miss you,” and giggled. I felt like I was 14 years old. In a nice way.
I won’t say these two people saved my life, but of course they did. (Why didn’t the others write back?!) One time I was drowning in a river in North Carolina and Meredith saved my life. “Don’t panic,” she said. A friend is someone who saves your life.
New York, New York
John and I were ten years old. Friends. Playmates. If I had been warned of separation or that a part of life could be lost, I would not have heard. Warm winds were moving the two of us into Spring, enriching and certifying our camaraderie and fun. And trees lifted their arms in certain enticement. Perhaps to one more fling?
My friend taught me about the dangers of his BB gun and would never pull the trigger when I was near. I showed him the fun of playing tricks as streetcars rumbled past. We placed pennies on the tracks and saw how faces changed on the crushed coins. Once, in an act of destruction and creation, I showed John how to cross straight pins so wheels could forge tiny silver scissors.
There was some open land where our families shared a garden away from the city. One bright Sunday we planted vegetables and rested in the shade after lunch. The bare fields were freshly plowed and the two of us invented a game of hopping into furrows without disturbing the rows. His father sent us with a message to the farmhouse — from there we wandered off to search for a pond in the woods.
We spent a long time exploring and wading in the water. He taught me to hurl flat stones to make them skip over the pond’s surface. Time meant nothing. Our socks, shoes, and legs were covered with mud as we trudged happily back down the road.
We were met by anxious parents. John’s mother had feared we were lost or had drowned in one of the ponds. I felt uneasy because people were upset. Yet, my strongest memories yield simply a golden afternoon of play.
I never saw my friend again. A week later, on another Sunday, the phone rang. In the hall there were voices of people talking quietly. My mother motioned and we entered a room alone. She said John had drowned in a nearby creek.
I had no clear image of death. I thought of crying but couldn’t. The news became more real when someone said John’s father almost lost his mind at the bank of the creek.
We didn’t go back to the farm that summer. At some point I wondered about the carrots I had planted. Several years later we did return for a visit and our families sat around a large campfire as darkness settled. Suddenly, John’s mother began talking quietly, slowly, in measured tones: “You know, we struggle to plan our lives and figure everything out. We want to know all that can happen. We expect to watch our children grow, help them build their lives. But somehow life never works out quite the way we think it will. We try to believe, but we just can’t . . .”
Friends have a way of clinging to the soul. It’s almost as though some ancient weaver had traced air, water, earth, our play, and companionships through rich tapestry, leaving behind single strands for Time to cordon off parts of the heart. Through the years the self becomes locked in motion and left sustained, reserved, forced to remember all the joys and perilous ways of friendship.
Marie H. Baldwin
Recently I spent time with a friend I had not seen in a long time. There was some hesitancy, at first, about seeing her. I knew that I had grown and changed tremendously since our last time together; so had she. Things between us would be unfamiliar. It wasn’t consciously articulated, but in my heart was the awareness that our meeting couldn’t be for “old time’s sake” as so often is the case when friends get together after a time apart.
Most “friendships” are based on a static state — personality, looks, personal likes and dislikes, or some shared experience in the past. The relationship quickly ossifies because its source is in history. Whenever these “friends” get together it is a meeting of weary archeologists exchanging fossils of anecdote, gesture, and expression. I wondered if meeting my friend Suzanne would be a similarly stultifying experience.
We had arranged to go for an early morning jog down the same road in the Catskill Mountains of New York that we had run down a year before. In the chill morning air the awakening rhythm of my legs, lungs, and heart paced the whirring of my mind as it tried to anticipate our conversation. Halfway down the dirt drive I met Suzanne and we set off together. Behind us the sun rose in pastel pageantry. Above us trees stretched in blazing colors toward the autumn sky. The rhythm of double footfalls in the road drummed gently in the stillness. Suzanne chatted in her quick, strong manner of recent adventures in her world, her love for this particular stretch of road. I said very little, listening intently to this vibrant woman, appreciating the sparkling clarity of her tone. My eyes searched the fields around us for signs of deer. Last year when we ran this road, I had seen a couple just over there behind a gnarled tree stump. No, this morning there were no deer and the tree stood silent, alone, naked as we ran by.
By now the sun was fully risen and we bathed in warmth and sweat. At the bend in the road, just before it dips and descends two miles down the mountain, we turned back. The conversation turned with us, to our first run down that road and beyond — through the past to the fullness of our friendship on this morning. After some initial probing on both sides we got beyond the obvious changes and recognized the ever present, wondrous spirit of life which had drawn us together in the first place. We had both changed, matured, blossomed in the expression of that spirit — but nothing had been lost. Our connection was in fact deeper than ever. In that moment of recognition we weren’t old friends anymore but completely present on the precipice of our new uncharted friendship, excited to discover and acknowledge the newness in each other. The pace of our run quickened with the lightness of our spirits, our footfalls now a single steady beat upon the pavement. We stopped talking, silenced by the poignant beauty of seeing each other anew yet unchanged, each one a brilliant, dazzling gem revealing new facets of life’s magnificence. Together we ran, blended, expanded in finer and finer harmony. The world seemed to sing with us the tones of true friendship, where every meeting, for a moment or a lifetime, brings the excitement of receiving and appreciating greater depth, texture and color in each other. At the bottom of the drive we stopped running. Suzanne went up the hill to her cottage and I back through the woods to the other side of the lake. It didn’t matter that we might not see each other for another year, or never again. It was a brand new day.
Epping, New Hampshire
There is a profound sense of acceptance coming from Donna. It feels so good to know that I am accepted for who I am. I can be myself with all my shortcomings and faults. I can make mistakes or sound stupid. I can express my femininity without fear. I can laugh and I can cry. I can be wild or vulnerable, and know I will not be rejected. I can express anger at Donna, and she will know that it is coming from a space of love. I can be truly human with all my frailties.
Friendship is completely different from the way I imagined! It is full of uncertainty and doubt. It seems so fragile at times. I feel fear, and resistance, and vulnerability, yet I have gathered up the courage to meet another human being in an honest manner.
This friendship is not based on loneliness and a sense of separation. I am not using Donna as a way to escape facing my problems. On the contrary, I am forced to confront my deepest fears in this relationship. I am learning to love without manipulation and control. I do not intend to end this friendship the minute the going gets tough.
Our connection is so deep that it matters little that our personal interests are quite different from each other. We do not want this relationship to be based on anything outside of ourselves.
For the first time in my life, I really feel understood. Donna really cares about me, and I am concerned with her in ways I never dreamt possible. Guilt has no place in our friendship. We have no need to use “shoulds” or “should-nots” around each other. Substitute parental figures also have no place in our friendship.
Friendship, above all, seems to require maturity, isn’t something that can be sensationalized, and turned into a romantic movie. Friendship is sacred, the greatest gift God has given us. What a blessing it is to have a true friend.
North Hollywood, California
The friends of my life are like a mountain stream. The tumbling, splashing, glittering shallows are my good-timing friends who fill sunny summer days. They attract my attention and give me laughter and smiles. But, like sun sparkling on the water, they disappear with the sunshine.
The dark, murky depths of the river are the soulmates of my life. Their powerful presence lures me, their dark deepness mystifies and captures me. When the sunshine disappears, the depths become crystal clear and reveal hidden treasures that hide beneath the surface. Light is transformed and returned. The depths are constant although the river continually races by. The water, leaves, and debris that flow into the deepest parts of the river leave the frantic pace of the current to linger with the mystery for a while.
These friends are rare and treasured. Two of these valuable friends, Alex and Lindsey, flow in and out of my life. Although we live miles and even states apart, their constancy and depth are always felt. Each friend seems to return to my life through letters, calls, and visits at precisely the right moment to help me renew and become whole again. Our conversations reveal nuances about ourselves. Peace and smoothness fill the time and space around us. Disagreements are strengthening forces, and time apart seems to link us more firmly together.
The glittering portions of the river are exciting and novel, but I soon leave them behind. I continually return to these mystifying depths that give such peace and knowledge.
You know how friendships linger on and become mechanical rituals? I recently decided to examine my longest standing and strongest, still-functioning friendship. Something that makes a relationship meaningful just wasn’t there. Mutual reticence around getting together made it clear that some important factor was missing. But what was it? What do I want in a relationship? Must I give up some of my ideas about friendship and its possible dimensions?
That particular friendship was formed more than a decade ago, when both he and I were involved in divorce and separation, floundering with our life goals, involved in major life changes. The friendship endured because of some commonality in our basic personality structures — the ways in which we sought and found pleasure, shared creative and aesthetic values, age, our life stage, the passages we were negotiating. The energy we gave the friendship through the years often depended upon the fluctuations in our separate primary relationships. The base was sound. Yet all of a sudden I wanted to know what of the friendship was new, where it could grow, how it could satisfy. (I know, from a Higher Consciousness point of view, it doesn’t matter who you hang out with. I’m not that enlightened.)
I finally decided to confront this issue when I tried out on my friend an idea of Joel Kramer, author of The Passionate Mind, who says that beliefs are those concepts of which we are unsure, those we have incorporated into our reality but which we are at root unable to prove. When we defend an idea with strong emotions, Kramer says, it probably is a belief which needs bolstering against the threat of some other reality. My friend, a psychiatrist, couldn’t consider this idea even briefly.
I am drawn to trying on new ideas. I want a friend to come into my provisional realities for a while, just for the exhilaration of it! To clear my thinking, I decided to categorize the different ways in which I come together in relationship:
1) The Past and the Future
I share verbally with the other person events from usually recent experience or explore future possibilities, grounded in common interests — parent, householder, artisan, hedonist, whatever. We both exhibit information we have learned, we display knowledge. We may try to solve some problem together. Ostensibly, ideas are exchanged; actually, both persons usually “have a full cup.” This is the default pattern in many relationships, especially with my middle-aged contemporaries.
In this mode, I often barely listen to the other person. I prepare some ego-building tidbit I wish to trot out while he or she is talking, then bask in that revelation. I am guilty of one-up-manship, subtle or overt. Sometimes I listen, but it’s hard, because the material of this interchange is usually dead.
2) Now — Individual (The spirit of parallel play)
This involves participating in something together. The activity can be physical — canoeing, sports, gardening, construction, sauna, or hiking. It may also be emotional/visual/auditory — attending a performance, movie, music, or an art museum. In this category are things I like to do alone which are enhanced through sharing. It is typical of this state, however, that the other person’s perceptions are mostly unknown to me (it works almost as well with a total stranger).
3) Now — Interactive
This involves intimacy — knowing and caring where the other person is, and interacting verbally or non-verbally based on that. When the interaction is verbal it is in tune: the speaking grows from the listening. It can also be the sharing of a physical experience, in a conversational form like massage or sex. Trust, openness, and honesty in a relationship are mutually agreed upon. The material of this interchange is alive, self-generating.
After 10 years I want a friend to be an alter ego, an other self, to share some of my experience of the world. My long-term acquaintance could not be that. He had built his personal reality so intentionally that he was unwilling to step out of those rigidly held bastions even briefly to venture into other spaces. An interactive relationship entails risk, some uncertainty as to where it may lead, a faith that wherever it goes, growth will occur.
I’m sad to say goodbye to my old friend. We might have continued another decade with parallel play, but the tension of differing needs had built too long. He could see what I looked for and it wasn’t anything he wanted. It feels good to have a clearer idea of what I need. I think my other friendships will grow through it.
Bankers, did you know that true friends are your greatest asset? You despised, alone, afflicted, did you know that the Heavenly Father is your greatest friend? Wealthy, leisure and sports-crazed Americans, did you know that by letting your TV and prosperous habits suffocate you that you have sacrificed being a true friend, a grace that requires discipline, work, and diligent commitment, for a pottage of lentils that will leave you bored, empty, overweight and unfulfilled?
Next to a true knowledge of God, being a friend and having real friends are the greatest things in this life. And remember, Quakers always call strangers and newcomers “friends.” Be a friend. You won’t lose your reward.
Elk Grove, Illinois