Sat on their park bench
Memory brushes the same years
–Simon and Garfunkel song
I am through and through a connector. By definition, I guess that means I enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. If there were a lucrative way to channel those skills—the brainstorm of do-you-know leading to whatever fortuitous kismet could be made, from locating romance to childcare to therapist to house to job to what-have you—I think I should sign up for that career. If that preschool standard, you know, “Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold,” is to be believed, there’s a lesser value to silver. I’m just saying, there ain’t nothing wrong with silver. I love its cool shine, its reflective gleam. New friends are one way life stays exciting and vibrant and, well, friendly.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself appreciating old friends. Now, obviously, friends are not metals, nor collectibles. And they are not shoes, to be broken in or left in a heap unworn. Why is it, then, that old friends kind of feel like the human equivalent to the perfect t-shirt? At their best, nearly threadbare in spots, a little faded, they fit predictably and feel soft. They enjoy attributes of both durability and comfortableness. Their enduring treasure is that you liked them then, shared something significant, and still like them now.
Old friends, knee-jerk reaction: travel back to childhood or adolescence, the friends I’ve known over the longest span of time; cue Simon and Garfunkel: Time it was, and what a time it was, it was/A time of innocence, a time of confidences. Yes, it was all that, although what makes those longest-lived friendships so vital is not the times of the past, it’s how that wash of years shared, those deeply rooted, most visceral reference points inform a breathing, growing friendship in the present with an ease that comes from such familiarity. I was reminded of this over the weekend, road-tripping with my closest middle-and-high school friend, Alison, from Northampton, where we both live now, to Jamaica Plain for my stepsister, Emily’s, baby shower (and how sweet was it to see her with her old friends, from camp, high school, and college?). Alison lived my parents’ divorce as I lived her family’s stormier moments. She and I do well in a car together—we’ve gotten lost in Philadelphia and its suburbs, Jersey, Vermont, London and even were vulnerable to becoming disoriented in Georgia—but beyond physical geography, we’ve been on a years-in-the-making road trip, not unlike those little cars wending their way to the finish in the board game, Life (and entirely different).
Okay, so friends are not pink and blue pegs fitted into a plastic car’s “seats,” drawing cards in lieu of choices and fate, no matter that sometimes the things that happen feel as random and reasonless as directions printed on a card.
However, what surprises me is how many sorts of old friends I am fortunate enough to enjoy. This could be one of those benefits of mid-life coming to pass, or how the Internets allow for a connectivity that continues to grow between people at geographic removes from one another, sure. It could be, too, putting myself in the path of more friendships these days or seeing those connections as flourishing (kind of a half-full perspective to life), but however it came to pass, I am feeling extremely fortunate.
A visit from my friend, Emily, and her son, Sam, this weekend served as reminder not only of our fortuitous connection, but also that friendships can span generations, as we witnessed when her second son, Sam, same age as Ezekiel, traipsed (to the extent that either boy is one to traipse) off to a play one night, and to a sleepover with a couple of Ezekiel’s (old) friends the next. No great surprise that Ezekiel and Sam would like one another: they share love for books, interests in technology and theater, quirkily intelligent sense of humor, and penchant for games… The pair walked home together from the play, and through the darkness, we heard Sam’s lower voice and Ezekiel’s not yet fully dropped one mid-conversation. There was something so affirming about those voices, that sense of a friendship, in its way, being passed down.
Emily and I met, literally, on the street, Westbourne Grove, early in my eighteen-month tenure as an ex-pat. I passed by, smiled at Emily’s then-six month-old baby (Noah, now in high school) and the mama, and the mama smiled back. Then, I heard, “Excuse me, but are you an American?” The dead giveaways were my New Balance sneakers, my Jansport backpack, and my smile in the adult’s direction, not solely the child’s. We were both writers and American ex-pats, living within blocks of one another. And so, we began. We both loved books and museums and gardens, both suffered nausea with the Ezekiel-and-Sam pregnancies, and both were—in different ways—the unconventional daughters in our families of origin, married to the less-than-traditional sons-in-law. Since that time in London, there have been steady visits, calls with news of babies born (we each have four), letters, postcards, and emails.
Turns out, I have many contemporary friendships with people from high school and college or my early adult years. Whether they live here or afar, those connections not only bring me great pleasure, they also instill a sense of wholeness. Whether it’s sharing ideas about a greener world with Tom or trading emails and frustrations and joys with Caroline or watching our six year-old boys skitter about the Tuesday Farmer’s Market with Rachel (or… or…), those ties contribute to a feeling of being rooted within myself.
After nearly fourteen years as a parent, the friends from my children’s babyhoods (or beforehand) are much more than touchstones; they are people I’ve been through it with on this end of the family equation, people I trust, people I respect. From the early parenting days—sleep deprivation, poop, breastfeeding, claustrophobia, unbridled fear—through all sorts of unexpected moments—boy wearing dress, broken leg, feather in cheek, struggles with handwriting, loss of extended family members, meanness and kindness—I feel so lucky to have friends who love my babies alongside me. My kids’ homes away from home make me feel comforted, too, as my friends’ rejoicing in my kids’ triumphs make me feel that much more delighted by their accomplishments. Raising a family is so intense; the incredible realization dawns that there is, within the village required to pull off such a gargantuan task, a core group of individuals remembering the steps you’ve taken, literally walking alongside you.
Speaking of villages, the virtual connections made as a writer—people who have edited pieces, or been inspirations, people who have championed my work and vice versa—these ties, over time and with strong literal support of the ever more socially wired Internet, also feed my life in really wonderful ways these days. Working for the most part in isolation as a freelance writer, how satisfying it is to have fellow writers (many of them also parents, writing about parenthood) in my daily life. I love reading what they write. I love the occasions I have to speak or visit (live!) with them. I love getting to share their work with friends outside the writers’ village. Mostly, I love being part of a community of smart, eloquent, funny, compassionate people (yes, mostly women, but not exclusively).
My mother’s friendships (which included her sister, who has passed away, and still includes a generous handful of cousins) have always been characterized—to my mind and I think hers as well—by a very strong inner circle. Her decades-long tried and true friends (also the case for my mother-in-law) have always served as the greatest role models. Friends can really, truly show up for one another. Early in my parents’ separation and divorce process, my mother’s friend (and mine), Linda, called her daily and came over for supper weekly. She just was part of life. My mother has been the same for Linda, simply part of whatever happened. My mother-in-law just returned from North Carolina, driving her dear friend, Esther, down to Greensboro, where Esther will serve for the next couple of years as Provost at Bennett College. That’s just a tiny example of the myriad ways she and Esther have accompanied one another through their lives. They are not only friends, but also collaborators and politically aligned spirits.
Maybe the most apt analogy for friendships is compost. Bits of life experience transmogrify into fertile soil. In order for this to occur, turning and time, air, patience, some TLC—and trust—are all required (humor helps, too). What’s required is seeing not the things ceded but the new things made, the richness revealed, the growth supported and celebrated and earned.