Seeing Each Other Through

Friendship is a curious and wonderful thing. I spent last weekend with college friends whom I’ve now known for more than half my life, twenty-three years to be exact.

I find our friendship remarkable because we remained connected through a span of time in which human beings—at least in the western world—behave in ways that are designed to alienate people. I don’t mean that we were bad people, just that we were in our twenties, a period when we struggle so hard to establish an identity that we can feel threatened by others’ attempts to do the same. Now we can joke about our differences, but there was a time when we—or at least I—took those aspects of our personalities so seriously that we could have allowed them to pull us apart.

And that would have been a great loss because I can confess the important things to these friends, from jealousy toward women who can wear cute, flat, bad-for-your-feet sandals to my deepest heartbreaks. These are generous, funny, smart women, and we can laugh or be silent together, drink good wine or eat onion rings with equal giddiness.

These two know me at so many levels. They know I didn’t learn how to clean a toilet until my junior year of college. They know I will always be the last one ready to go. They have listened with great love and patience to my self-doubts and my fears that the world was falling apart. They have held the preciousness of my self when I couldn’t and reflected it back to me until I could find it again. They have done this not once but many times.

One of my favorite hymns, The Servant Song, says, “I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.” I’m not sure that we can offer one another anything more essential than sharing our joys and sorrows. I know that Heidi and Molly will do exactly that for me and that we will be together until the end of our journeys, and that is a tremendous gift. I love you both. Thank you.

Thank You, Dear Friend

One time, in the midst of moving across country, I stopped at my friend Bardwell’s house with my Ford Escort packed to the gills, my toiletries unwisely buried behind one of the seats. I was in my mid-twenties. Bardwell must have been in his early seventies.

He took my face between his hands and looked at me with his twinkling blue eyes and transferred into me some knowing of my own preciousness, as Jim Finley would call it. I don’t recall the words he used, but I’m sure they included “love,” a word I sometimes have trouble using with even my closest friends, though never, since that visit, with him.

Bardwell taught me and many, many other college students Asian religions. He didn’t reduce religion to a system of ideas but rather offered us a way of being in the world, a way he practiced. I always thought that when the Tao Te Ching talked about a sage, it was talking about someone like Bardwell.

He marked our papers in green or purple felt-tip pen and reading his comments felt intimate, as if the ink held the attention and love with which he responded to our efforts. He taught us to be careful with words: childlike not childish, pacifist not passive. He encouraged us to take risks in our writing and thinking by rewarding the successes and not paying too much attention to the failures as long as there was some daring in the attempt.

Long after I had graduated, he was the first to tell me the concept that now shapes my seeking in this life—that there is no such thing as our individual identities, that we are all parts of a single whole. He may have been saying it all along, but when I finally heard it, it stuck, though I had no idea what he meant.

There are many wonderful facets to Bardwell—his gentle and quick sense of humor, his love of puns and baseball, the way his smile sometimes reveals the six-year-old inside—but as ever, when I want to capture the essence of something or someone, I’ll steal a few lines from William Stafford, this time from the poem “You Reading This, Be Ready”:

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?

That’s where Bardwell lives from—that breathing respect for all and for the reality of our interconnectedness held in the awareness that it is all gift. Should you ever be lucky enough to meet him, you’ll feel it.

Being Together

My apologies for missing the blog post unannounced last week, but I have a great excuse: I was visiting some longtime friends, which reminded me how life-giving it is simply to be together.

A couple of these friends I met in college, and I often forget how well they know me. When you live with someone for two or three years, you see every side of them—the kind, the impatient, the elated, the dejected. It’s rather miraculous that we’ve hung onto these friendships for more than half our lives because in that many years, we are all bound to do more than one something that pisses the other person off.

The remarkable thing is that spending time together is more important than the particular activity. Whether eating rhubarb pound cake at the up-and-coming restaurant in town or hamburgers at home on an overcast Memorial Day, playing with the toddler or meeting the cats and touring the new condo, the company made the moment. The rest of it was fun but secondary.

I don’t know why this is true, but I know it is. I’ll probably always remember certain moments listening to live music, watching theater, or eating great food, but I don’t think any of them will enter as deeply or mean as much as sitting with these friends and wondering about nearing midlife or catching each other up on daily happenings or not talking at all.

I think we’ve all done a good job of valuing our friendship throughout the years, but it seems that the older we get, the more deeply we understand just how lucky/fortunate/blessed we are.

Maybe love, like wine or cheese, can improve with age. And like the wine in its oak barrel or the cheese in its cave, it does so by simply being in the presence of those we love and appreciating who they are.

What Lasts

It is scary to be old enough to have had a 20-year high school reunion. On the other hand, it is amazing to be old enough to gather with former school friends all of whom are capable of recognizing and celebrating the various ways we’ve become adults.

During winter carnival weekend, a small group of friends from junior high and high school gathered to watch street events and reconnect with Steamboat and with each other. People in the group have done impressive things—become doctors or engineers, sold everything and started over with a new lifestyle that fit better, given birth. Perhaps most impressive to me was that we all still enjoyed each other.

Some of these people I see annually and some I hadn’t seen for over twenty years, but we still laughed and told stories not as if time hadn’t passed but rather with a miraculous ease in spite of being aware that it had.

The idea that the friendships we make before age 25 are more lasting than those we make later in life has come up in conversation recently. I doubt this is uniformly true, but I think there’s something to it.

Things enter us differently when we’re children than when we’re adults—landscape, music, language; so many things go straight into our DNA, so to speak, unquestioned and unfiltered by the layers of judgment we practice as adults. Perhaps this is true for childhood friendships, too—they get wired in somehow.

It’s nice to know that even when our daily thinking and acting is overlaid with adult concerns, we can rediscover the connections we formed when life was more immediate. And see what good choices our younger selves made.

Ode to Friends

To really milk your birthday to its utmost potential, don’t organize your own party. That way, multiple small groups of friends will take you out for a lot of individual birthday meals.

This lack of planning also gave me a lot of chances to think about how great my friends are—and not only because they were feeding me. Here are just a few of the ways they are awesome.

They are courageous. Whether traveling through a developing country in a wheelchair, caring for an elderly parent, or facing their own death, they complain little.

They don’t deny the difficulties of life but don’t dwell on them too much. They allow anger and grief and joy and love and can laugh at the ridiculous during good times and bad.

They work hard and care not only about the quality of their work but also about how they treat those they work with. They don’t spend much time blaming other people.

They are willing to change their minds after reflecting on something and regularly take the time for that reflection.

They are funny and kind and resilient and generous and they make me laugh. And the crowning achievement—they like to eat and cook really well.

To steal a few brilliant phrases from a graduation speech by a young woman named Rebekah Frumkin who is much smarter than I was at twenty-two, my friends “[square] the serious with the silly” and “[view] the world with humility and candor” (from a commencement address given at Carleton College).

All this helps me inch toward accepting that life is not about having everything work out well for everyone—as defined by me—but about how we react to the highs and lows. Not because I like it or it makes sense. Not because the highs and lows aren’t real but because they are and life is simply more enjoyable when we focus our mental and emotional energy on the things we’re grateful for, like amazing friends.

Celebrate Your Life

Birthdays can be a time for reflection, but this year I’m opting for celebration. Some cool things that happened on or near my birthday:
•    My van erupted into spontaneous song on hearing news of the occasion.
•    A friend sent me a picture of her smiling, swinging baby with good wishes.
•    Three friends from two very different times in my life met each other in Johannesburg, South Africa.
•    My team won the over-30s division of the local soccer tournament.
•    I discovered someone in my new office has the same birthday I do. As a result, we got both a birthday breakfast and a birthday lunch. I think that’s what they mean when they say nirvana.
•    A friend baked me some healthy yet surprisingly tasty cookies, which is particularly impressive because I am generally opposed to combining the concepts health and dessert.
•    My mom took me out to dinner, and we had completely unhealthy chocolate torte with hazelnut mousse. Yum.
•    Another friend sent me this blog post by someone who spent her birthday doing random acts of kindness.
•    A number of people wrote cheerful texts.
•    My dad called.
•    The answer to one of life’s great mysteries—who buys Christmas ornaments in July?—was answered when my mom and sister bought me some I’d been eyeing in San Diego.

According to this list, what’s going to make the next year enjoyable is chocolate cake. That and the people who surround, nurture, and support me, who make me laugh and do me perhaps the greatest favor any of us can do for each other—keep me in mind, whether they are near or far.

And all of this for someone who only remembers others’ birthdays about fifty percent of the time. Thanks, everyone.

Get Your Gratitude On

To get us all in the mood for the holiday, here is a brief selection from the long list of things I’m grateful for.

CornucopiaThe sense-able: the sun’s warmth on a cold day, the contour of a rock pressing through the sole of my shoe, my sister’s laugh, the impossible whir of hummingbird wings, the oboe playing out over the rest of the orchestra, cat purrs, the smell of freshly-baked bread, the scent of the air after a good rain, the way a warm chocolate chip cookie melts around your tongue, the taste of fried squash blossoms or a perfect peach, the clarity of the milky way on a cloudless mountain night.

The less tangible: early morning silences, the lift of my spirit when a hawk circles, the way a wildflower or sunlight through fall leaves calls me back to the present, the impatience of tree buds ready to burst into life, the satisfaction of a well-placed word or well-struck soccer ball, the way a line of poetry can grab me somewhere between my heart and my bones, the anticipation of leaving on a journey, the comfort of returning home, the moments of feeling all is right in my pocket of the world.

The often overlooked: running water, hot running water, cleaning machines of all kinds, well-maintained roads, airplanes, laughter, peaceful sleep, dentists, antibiotics.

The essentials: so much food I have never once worried about going hungry, clean drinking water, shelter, heat, work, freedom to relate to God as I choose, time to create and the freedom to decide the form of that creation.

The even more essentials, a.k.a. family, friends, and blog readers: your encouragement, your support, your humor, your patience, your forgiveness, your generosity, your love, you.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Joyful feasting.

Just Marvelous

A very important event happened recently: my friend Mary Ann turned ninety. I hope I can be as full of life on my next birthday as she was on her nintieth.

Every time Mary Ann sees you she tells you, “Well I think you’re just marvelous,” and she is so clearly delighted with exactly who you are that you start to believe it a little. You also start to think maybe you could tell others the same thing.

Mary Ann collects people. She almost never walks past someone without greeting him or her, regardless of whether she knows the person or not. There must have been more than fifty people at her birthday party, young and old and most ages in between. To honor her sense of adventure, the candles on the cake were tiny sparklers.

She has survived the death of her husband and all her biological children with her good humor and ability to enjoy life intact. She appreciates beautiful things and supports the people who make them.

She is losing her sight and has had to move into an assisted living apartment, a dangerous environment for a free spirit. The first year or so, she struggled with the transition, but every time she started a conversation by complaining, she ended it by telling me why she was lucky to be there.

During a prayer at the party, a friend of hers, in trying to describe what about the birthday girl she was grateful for said, “I’m grateful for her being so Mary Ann.” And I’m grateful for such a fine example of how being deeply ourselves and enjoying the heck out of it may be the best way to spend our lives. Thank you, Mary Ann.

Built to Last

Two pieces of advice: 1) Don’t throw away your junior high yearbook. 2) If someone invites you to spend an evening with four best friends who haven’t seen each other in fifty years, do it. And stick around until the yearbooks come out.

I lucked into just such an evening recently. An old friend of my parents had recently attended her fifty-year high school reunion, and her closest friends from that time had gathered together for a few extra days. She invited my mom and me to spend an evening with the group. It didn’t occur to me until the drive home that I’d just been honored to spend an evening with my elders.

Because we don’t much practice respect for our elders, the term for me conjures up tribal matriarchs in smoky tepees giving sage and perhaps difficult to understand advice. This is wisdom—mysterious in both content and transmission.

The evening bore no resemblance to that picture. The stories told ranged from hopping on a stranger’s motorcycle with a frog in order to arrive in Calaveras in time to register for the jumping frog contest to sneaking into the priest’s side of the confessional and accidentally hearing someone’s confession, complete with absolution and penance.

This is real wisdom—the gathered stories and laughter of lives fully and well lived, a love that survives an absence of fifty years, the sharing of both. We don’t find wisdom by trying not to make mistakes, by staying safe, or by striving to be good, as I often mistakenly believe. Wisdom finds us when we wade into life, when we enjoy the ride, when we look on the other side of the screen.

I’m certain none of those present thought of the evening as anything other than time spent with good friends. I can’t think of a wiser use of an evening.

Falling Back In

Going back in time is a dicey proposition. I tested it out last week in Chicago when visiting with some friends I hadn’t seen in seven or eight years.

We had not kept in close touch. I am a lousy correspondent; five Christmas cards constitute an overachiever year for me. I also tend to get wrapped up in the local day to day, leaving little time for those far away.

The bus ride to my old neighborhood gave me a jarring sensation of the familiar turned foreign, as in a dream when you know you’re at school but the building is clearly your Aunt Millie’s house. Visiting with old friends, on the other hand, felt surprisingly normal—no awkwardness, no tension, as if I dropped by for lunch on a regular basis. Though we had only an hour and spent most of it catching up on life details, simply being in each other’s company gave us all a good deal of joy. Something within us still fits together in whatever ways first drew us to one another.

These people’s presence in the world makes me happy. It still matters to me how their particular corner of life is turning around. Their idiosyncrasies still charm me. How can I claim all that when we rarely take the time even to shoot off an email? I suspect that friendships are amazing, elastic things, and our capacity for love exceeds the time available to us, taken up as it is with the necessities of work, laundry, and the like.

There are people scattered across the globe whose daily lives used to intersect with mine but now diverge completely. Some of them I can reasonably hope to see again; others I likely never will. Yet I find it comforting that I care what happens to them and that they may return the favor.