We met — how better for two career journalists? — thanks to a magazine assignment.
I was writing for a women’s magazine about what was then an exotic, little-discussed way to meet someone, called Internet dating. Long before Tinder or Bumble, it was considered sad and declassé, something you might do if desperately lonely but definitely not cool.
I got 200 replies to my on-line profile from around the world — with the truthful headline “Catch Me If You Can.”
I stopped reading after 50.
Luckily for both of us, my husband Jose was in the top 50.
I had hoped to find, for my second husband, someone modest but accomplished, a world traveler, someone with a strong spiritual life, if not religious. Someone funny, smart, goodhearted.
And handsome would be nice.
He is, like me, an accomplished career journalist — a photographer and photo editor for The New York Times for 31 years, who covered three Presidents, two Olympics, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping for six weeks in an unheated shipping container in December.
Sept. 17, 2011, Toronto
We met for our first dinner in midtown Manhattan on a cold March evening, and he wore a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl (his practice) as a muffler.
At the end of a long and lovely evening, he wrapped me up in it, warm and scented with his fragrance, a classic scent called 1881.
That was it, kids.
Eighteen years later (!), here we are.
18 things I’ve learned:
1. Everyone carries some emotional baggage. If you’re lucky, maybe a duffel and a carry-on, so to speak, and not 20 enormous unpacked trunks. But we all bring it with us.
2. Which is why humility is essential to sustaining an intimate relationship. No one, anywhere, is “perfect.” If you think they are, you’re deluded. If you think you are, get a grip on your inflated ego.
3. Affordable access to a good therapist can be the best investment you’ll ever make, for yourself and your partner/spouse. Until you can safely unpack, name and number your personal demons, they can destroy your life and that of anyone trying to love you. This includes addictions.
4. If you find yourself — as we both did on separate occasions — shouting at your sweetie in a blind rage, allow for the possibility you’re shouting at a ghost, at someone from your past who’s still living inside your head. Yes, of course, we can get angry at the people we love, but this is different. Sometimes it’s not about you at all.
5. It can take a long, long, long time to trust another person, and that might have nothing to do with you or how much they love you. I’m forever moved by this verse of this song by John Mayer…
I know a girl She puts the color inside of my world But, she’s just like a maze Where all of the walls all continually change And I’ve done all I can To stand on her steps with my heart in my hand Now I’m starting to see Maybe It’s got nothing to do with me
6. So don’t ever try to force or rush physical or emotional intimacy with someone you love. Let them feel safe with you and relax. Some of us had scarring childhoods and need a lot more time than you think we should or you expect or makes you feel comfortable. True love is not all about you.
7. If your sweetie never laughs, why not? If you never laugh with them, what’s up? Laughter is a daily constant with us, and deeply healing. Depression is also real.
8.Bad shit is going to happen to you both, no matter how thin/pretty/hard-working/wealthy you are. Parents will get sick and die. Friends will get sick and die. We will suffer illness and injury, surgeries and recovery. We’ll lose jobs and face periods of unemployment. Your partner must have strength of character for your relationship to endure without resentment. You, and they, will have to step up and be a damn adult, many times, no matter how painful or expensive.
9. Which is why, if you’re choosing a life partner, pay very careful attention to their values, ethics and principles — in action. Words are meaningless without consistent follow-through. Choose someone with a strong work ethic or you’ll forever be broke and anxious, pulling their weight and pissed at their entitled laziness.
10. Go for long walks, whatever the weather. Alone, to think. With them, for company.
11. Put down your damn phone.
12. Talk to your sweetie every day for 30 to 60 minutes, (even in 10-minute bits!), uninterrupted by children or work or outside forces. Make them your entire focus when you do, because undivided attention is the greatest gift we can offer someone we love.
13. Take time every day to nurture yourself, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically. Don’t rely on someone to be your “everything.”
14. Have deep, sustaining friendships beyond your dyad, (but protect it fiercely.) If you fear someone’s about to poach, (hence my second marriage), pay attention.
15. Make sure you both have wills, beneficiary statements, advance directives and health care proxy paperwork signed. You never know when you might suddenly need to use them.
16. Create a document, updated every 6 months and printed out, with your every PIN and password and emergency contacts. Include your medical record and the medications you take so your sweetie can easily take charge, should you be incapacitated or die.
17. Celebrate the hell out of your partner’s every success, no matter how small it may feel or seem. Few of us will win an Oscar or ever make the big bucks. Small wins matter too.
18.Savor every minute you’re given with a loving spouse or partner. Too many will leave us far too soon.
Today in the U.S. is Thanksgiving, a huge holiday that the fortunate will spend with people they love and who have welcomed them into their homes with food and drink and kindness.
We are in suburban Maryland, just outside D.C., with a dear friend and her husband, a fellow journalist who stood in Toronto in September 2011 as our official wedding witness. We’ve visited them many times, but this year were grateful she was able to also welcome a younger friend of ours, a freelancer in D.C. whose mother died a few years ago and whose father lives far away.
We were also grateful recently in Ontario when our friends there welcomed my former sister-in-law to stay the night and dine with us — we live in a one-bedroom apartment, so we can welcome at most two people, (if Jose sleeps on the floor and I get the sofa and the couple get our bed.)
When people have room to spare, (and we always bring gifts and wine and pay for groceries and write thank-you notes!) it’s a blessing.
The opening of one’s home, heart and table are great gifts.
I’ve recently begun following a smart, tough Christian writer and pastor named John Pavlovitz, and his new book, A Bigger Table, brings the same spirit of generosity and openness in a time of deep and bitter social and political division.
I haven’t yet read his book, but I follow him on Twitter and like his voice and his point of view.
Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!
After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with, said Marla Paul, the author of the 2004 book “The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore.” “The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita,” she said.
Manipulators, drama queens, egomaniacs: a lot of them just no longer make the cut.
Thayer Prime, a 32-year-old strategy consultant who lives in London, has even developed a playful 100-point scale (100 being “best friend forever”). In her mind, she starts to dock new friend candidates as they begin to display annoying or disloyal behavior. Nine times out of 10, she said, her new friends end up from 30 to 60, or little more than an acquaintance.
I like living in New York, and our town’s proximity to one of the world’s liveliest and more interesting cities.
But it’s one of the loneliest places I’ve ever lived.
I’ve found it tougher than I expected to find and keep friends here, maybe because…
–— Not enough time together
New Yorkers face the longest commutes of anyone in the U.S., robbing them of leisurely moments for friendship. It takes time to get to know another person well.
— Not enough spontaneous time together
Between work, family and commuting, all of which have rigid schedules, “Hey, let’s meet for a drink!” can take weeks, even months to plan.
—– Few shared memories
I arrived in New York at 30, with my deepest ties back in Canada, to friends from childhood, high school, university, a newspaper job, freelancing. They remain, decades later, my most intimate friendships.
— Unresolved conflict
I lost three close New York friends within a few years. That still hurts. In contrast, I’ve had full and frank conversations with my Canadian pals — and they with me — and remained friends.
One casual friend finally told us his annual income was $500,000 and I was stunned; thanks to his humble style I had no idea. We live (modestly) in a very affluent region, and many people out-earn us by enormous sums. When one person, or couple, has to keep choosing pizza or ramen and the other can drop $200 a night on cocktails, how much can you enjoy together?
— Political differences
Since the election of President Trump, many American relationships have been torn asunder.
— Professional differences
I’m nearing the end of a long and successful career, in a competitive industry, like my husband; I’m a writer and he’s a photographer and photo editor. Professional envy and competitiveness can, and do, make us cautious about what we share about our current clients and projects.
We have none. At our age, younger friends are obsessed with child-rearing and our peers with their grand-children, We’re never invited to join child-related events, even if we’d enjoy it. That cuts out a lot of socializing.
I do very much value my pals in far-flung places — L.A., London, Berlin, British Columbia, Seattle, Oregon, Alabama, Maine, rural Ontario. I just wish we could hang out more often!
Are you finding it more difficult as you age to find and enjoy new friendships?
It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.
The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.
Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.
So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.
Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.
It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.
But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.
It’s the right thing to do.
And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.
One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!
She writes, in her farewell column:
I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.
I also loved this, from her:
You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.
We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.
We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.
We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.
That’s the tough part. Showing up.
More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.
Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.
I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.
And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.
I’ve been to one of those.
I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.
I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.
So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.
We never socialized and rarely spoke.
St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches
But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.
Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.
We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
As longtime readers here know, I’ve often blogged about friendship.
One reason friendship is so compelling to me is coming from a family that’s always riddled with anger and estrangements that go on for years, sometimes permanent. That’s deeply painful.
We all need love. We all need intimacy. We all need people willing to listen to our woes, cheer our triumphs, attend our graduations and bar/bat miztvahs, our kids’ weddings, to visit us in hospital or hospice — and someone, finally, to attend our funeral or memorial service.
A woman in our apartment building, (which is only made up of owners, some here for decades), recently died of cancer. She was prickly and cantankerous and had no family.
A note recently went up from friend of hers in a public space here to thank every single neighbor who showed up for her, took her meals, drove her to medical appointments — proxies for a loving family when she needed it most.
Another reason I so value friendship is having lost a few, and mourning the memories and histories now lost to me, shared with those women, like a New Year’s party in Jamaica with (!) live shots fired into the air around us or the day her friend let me helm his yacht — running it aground in Kingston harbor.
Like you, I treasure my friends and feel bereft when I lose one, although time and hindsight has helped me see that losing three of them has not inflicted long-term damage and, in fact, freed me to find much healthier, more egalitarian relationships.
I discovered that one of them had been lying a lot. That was enough for me.
Some of the friends I’m so grateful for:
Jose. My husband. We’ve been together 16 years and it’s the deepest and best friendship of my life. Even when I’m ready to change the locks, furious, I’ve never lost my respect or admiration for him.
N. She’s been through a hell of a lot, including early widowhood and a trans-national move. Her sweetness and optimism are refreshing, and consistent. My blood pressure drops when I’m around her.
S. Who else would give me a stuffed octopus?! A fellow journalist and college teacher of journalism, her calm, wise advice helped me through some of my toughest classroom moments.
P. I haven’t had an adult pal-across-the-street since the mid-1980s when I lived on the top two floors of a Toronto house and made a friend living in a communal house across the street. Proximity makes it so fun and easy to meet for a coffee or an adventure shopping for Italian food in the Bronx. She’s got one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I know. Also, funny as hell.
L. One of the very few close friends I’ve made at church, mostly a WASPy, frosty crowd. She’s an amazing mom, an attentive and loving listener, a font of calm wisdom.
The view from D’s apartment, which she sometimes lends me…
D. Oh, what we’ve seen, and survived! Both of us divorced, both of us career journalists still (!) in the business, both of us who’ve become New Yorkers who came from elsewhere. In a deep, long friendship, there’s so much shared history. She’s my oldest friend in New York.
M. More than family, she took me into her Toronto home year after year, hosting and celebrating birthdays like Jose’s 50th, and nurturing me for three weeks after my terrifying encounter here with a con man. Now she’s recently re-married, at 70. Yay!
MS. Young enough to be my daughter, this talented photographer is beautiful, smart, hard-working, adventurous. I admire her drive and skill, and so enjoy her visits. She’s slept on our sofa many times.
C. This astonishing young woman, also half my age, is a treat: whip-smart, emotionally intelligent, resilient as hell. She and I share a global perspective from life lived in various countries and some similar family issues. So happy that she and her fabulous husband are in my life.
PHMT. We met on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia when I was in my early 20s. I promptly fell hard! “I’m gay,” he said. Oh. OK. Let’s just be great friends! And we are. He finally stopped being cool to Jose when Jose and I married — knowing, finally, I was back in good hands, as he was so deeply protective of me for years. That’s friendship.
MO. Ohhhhh. We call ourselves the Pasta Twins, a play on each of our names, Marioni and Catellini. We met in freshman English class at University of Toronto, a very serious, very po-faced venue, when we rolled our eyes at one another. College pals know us in ways no one else ever will. We dated the wrong men, (like the gggggorgeous male best friends we met at a party, both of whom shattered our hearts), and fought for our independence from difficult fathers. Our adult lives could not be any more different — she’s the proud mom of three grown daughters and lives very far away now — but our love continues.
Wishing every one of you the blessing of friendship, now and for years to come!
It’s either (choose one!): pompous, boring, predictable, self-serving, self-promotional, fatally candid to publicly state your principles. Maybe.
I think action speaks louder than words. (There’s one thing I believe in.)
Having recently been hounded several times on-line, once by a very annoyed reader of this blog who emailed me privately three times to keep making his point — accompanied by personal insults — and within a women’s online group, it might be time to clear things up.
After all, more than 15,600 (!) people are now following this blog, and some may wonder — who is this woman and why should I listen to a thing she says?
— Generosity beats tight-fistedness. Almost every time. Some people will rush to take advantage of your altruism, kindness and goodwill. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll suss them out quick enough.
— Generosity is not defined by opening your wallet; some of the wealthiest people, writing enormous checks, are not behaving in a way I’d personally define as generous. You can offer your time, your skills, your wisdom, your advice, your hugs, your careful and undivided attention.
— Success is not a zero-sum game. It sure looks like it, and especially if you live in a society with very limited access to the top rungs of professional or financial accomplishment. Yes, only one author will win the Booker Prize and only a limited few will win Guggenheims and Fulbrights or hit the best-seller list. Helping others achieve their goals, whenever possible, is a decent choice.
— Envy will kill you. Stay in your lane. Be(come) the best version of yourself.
— Work at it! Those who are truly excellent at their craft have spent years, even decades, perfecting their skills. A blessed few have it all out of the gate. Most of us don’t. Take classes, get coached, find a mentor.
— In being strategic about when and how you use your energies. Even the most high-energy among us still need to sleep, rest, exercise, spend time with loved ones, think. If you insist on spreading yourself thin, 24/7, for months, years or decades….what is your strategy? Does everyone love or respect you? Should they?
— Kindness is not to be mistaken for weakness. Some of the toughest and most resilient people I know are also some of the kindest and gentlest.
— Persistence beats (lazy, entitled) talent. Every time. One of my favorite indulgences is watching the 14-year-old Lifetime show Project Runway, which chooses 14 fashion designers of varying ages and backgrounds and, each week, dismisses one, finally choosing a winner. In reading the biographies of this season’s designers, I was struck by the fact that one of them had auditioned for every single season and another had auditioned four previous times before being chosen. Giving up is an easy out. Staying in the game, sometimes much longer than you wanted or hoped or can really afford to, can be the way to win it. Eventually.
— Keep your promises. Don’t make them if you know you will not honor them. Others are counting on you.
— Intellectual debate is smart and necessary. But do it civilly. I come from a family of finger-pointing, table-pounding arguers. To us, a rousing debate is sport. But for too many people, now it quickly descends into ugly ad hominem attacks substituting for thoughtful comment. Nope. I won’t engage, here or elsewhere.
— We live in a diverse culture and listening to “the other” matters more than ever.
— Women’s bodies are ours, and ours alone. Yes, I believe we have the absolute right to decide if, when and how often we will agree to (or abstain from) sexual activity. We deserve legally-protected access to reproductive care and information. We deserve to be safe on the streets and in public spaces.
— Women’s value to the world lies not only, exclusively — ever — in the shape and size of our bodies, but in the width, depth and breadth of our generosity, intelligence and commitment to action.
— Being informed is a basic civic duty. It’s naive and disingenuous to say “the news is toooooo depressing!” There are hundreds of news sources, and if you find one (or dozens) of them disappointing, keep looking. Read, watch and listen to a range of opinions and reporting, including some from beyond your political perspective and national/domestic agenda.
— Beauty nurtures our souls and spirits. We neglect this at our peril. It might be nature or a painting or your baby’s smile. Savor it daily.
— Silence heals. In a noisy, crowded, distracted world, sitting in silence is essential.
— Elegance, in dress, demeanor, grooming and in your home, is a gift to yourself and to others. Style and wit are timeless and can offer great pleasure: a delicious meal beautifully served, a well-cut suit, a silk pocket square, a terrific haircut. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money, nor snobby brand-name-warfare, but it does require some time and attention.
— Friendship is one of life’s greatest blessings.
— Make time to play! Being an adult is hard work: paying bills, raising children, pleasing a demanding boss, colleagues, clients. Be sure to include playtime in your life as well.
— Underpromise and overdeliver. Too many people get that backwards.
— Send flowers. Yes, it’s expensive. Do it anyway.
— Write letters. On paper. By hand. Use a stamp. That sort of personal care and style is rare now, ever more appreciated.
— Showing up matters: at weddings, christenings/brises, bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, funerals, memorials. The bedsides of the ill and dying. Do not make excuses. Do not abandon people at their hour of greatest need.
— Compassion is our greatest source of power. Not corporate or political or religious titles. Not financial wealth. Not piles of stuff and six houses proving how “successful” you are. Without compassion and empathy for those hurting, doing what you can you help, your “riches” look ragged to me.
— We’re all hurting in some way. But don’t sit in it forever! Get help. Don’t spend your life wallowing, let alone brutalizing others with your unrecognized and unhealed traumas. Own them and, if at all possible, move forward. Take responsibility for yourself and relieve others of the unwanted burden of rescuing you repeatedly.
— Being blunt/candid/direct is not per se ugly, declasse or shocking when you realize that women’s voices and opinions matter every bit as much as men’s. Punishing women who speak their mind is a nasty and popular habit.
“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939)
Every year, at least once and sometimes several times, I head north to Toronto and to a cottage on a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, to visit my friends I’ve known for decades.
I left Toronto in 1986, afire with ambition, ready to marry. I met my first husband, an American, in Montreal and followed him to rural New Hampshire; neither took.
By 1994, I was a divorcee (no children) living in a pretty lonely suburb of New York City. Moving back to Canada felt like a retreat. I liked New York. I had yet to satisfy my professional ambitions.
And so I stayed.
In the decades I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve made friends.
But they’ve come and gone, sometimes with a stunning rapidity. I arrived in New York at the age of 30 — long past the traditional ages when the powerful emotional glue of shared schools, colleges and/or post-graduate training seem to create lifelong bonds for many Americans, some of whom are still pals with their freshman room-mate.
So I’ve found my American friends through other means — a work colleague (briefly), my freelance life, serving on several boards and attending/speaking at conferences, several colleagues of my husband’s from the newspaper he worked at for 31 years and for whom I freelance as well.
Luckily, I have a friend now living directly across the street from me — we met (yes, really) through a local man we both dislike heartily. But, a new pal!
Without children or hobbies or many non-work passions I’ve found it challenging to find people with whom I can create new deep ties. The world is full of friendly acquaintances, “Heyyyyyy!” — but less filled with people with the time, inclination or interest to start a new chapter with a stranger.
So when I see my long-time friends in Canada, we’re also revisiting our earlier selves:
P., once a curly redhead, is now gray, long-married to his husband. We met on a rooftop in Colombia, and still laugh at the same things but our last conversation also included our spouses’ searches for new employment and the struggle over a parent’s estate.
M., also a decade older than I, has known me since I was in my early 20s. We both visited New York City together when I appeared on stage as an extra in the ballet Sleeping Beauty for a story. I’ve stayed in her home many times since then and belatedly realized she’s more family than much of my own.
M, who I met in freshman English class when we eye-rolled at one another. A teacher and college administrator, she came all the way to N.Y. from the northern wilds of British Columbia for my first wedding to be my maid of honor; (my last, fateful words as I headed down the aisle: “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”. Thank heaven she did), and all the way to Toronto for my second. We still talk every few months from her home in B.C. and I still use the battered, stained cookbook she gave me in 1986.
L, a fellow journalist, whose home brims with beauty: hand-made pottery, drawings and oil paintings and colorful rugs. Her cooking, and hospitality, is astounding. We met in the 1980s, covering the same story for competing newspapers and re-met decades later on a fellowship in Florida.
S, 20 years my junior, a fellow ferocious jock and adventurous traveler. We’ve set new records for unbroken conversation — on my most recent trip, last week, we sat down in a restaurant for lunch at noon. We got up again at 5:30.
S, my age, who I’ve known since high school when we were both mad about J. — all of us now long since married. Like me, she’s artistic, creative, a free spirit with no children but who shares a deep love of the natural world and travel.
I find it comforting to know people over time, to be loved and valued and accepted and forgiven through the jobs, (and losses of same), the husbands, (and loss/gain of same), through illnesses and surgeries.
Fatter, thinner, happier or broken-hearted, lustily single or placidly married, they’ve seen me through it all, and vice versa.
You can safely fight and make up with these emotional distance runners — while others slink away or keep conversations perky, polished and politely, always, distant.
You know these friends’ partners and pets, (including the dead ones), their parents and siblings. Also, perhaps, their children and grand-children.
You know about the grant they didn’t win or the dream they never tried. They know why your brother hates you, and don’t care.
They know what makes you cry, even if they haven’t seen you — or seen you do it — in years.
We hold one another to a high standard, knowing, sometimes far better than a late-arriving partner or spouse, what lies beneath our bravado and bluster.
We are witnesses to one another’s lives.
(Longtime readers of Broadside know that my family is not especially close or loving, so these long-lasting friendships mean the world to me.)
The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends’ day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.
The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.
I want to sit at a table, or side by side by the fireplace or lazing on the dock, and talk for hours to someone whose face I can see, and vice versa.
Or going solo, no matter the family fallout, avoiding people whose behaviors keep making you miserable — substance abuse, alcoholism, homophobia — maybe a trifecta!
Where is home for you now?
Is it where you grew up, living with your parents?
Or maybe a hotel or apartment on the road, thousands of miles from people who speak your language?
Which holiday, if any, are you celebrating?
Will you attend a Christmas Eve church service?
I know one person spending it on an island deep in the Pacific Ocean, on Tuvalu. (Merry Christmas, Devi!)
Another two women, one from Philadelphia, one from Dublin, are each heading to Chile.
Christmas, with its rush of sentiment, shopping and song, can be a season of great joy, reuniting with people whose love and acceptance raise us up…or a time of intense loneliness.
At a time when people scurry home to their warm, well-lit refuges, some of us are mourning the loss of a partner, a child, a pet.
Some of us are battling serious illness. Some of us are seeking well-paid work and having little luck.
Anyone facing their first holiday season without a dearly loved one, as one recently widowed friend knows, will need the armor of light, (my favorite phrase), to carry them through.
I remember vividly the very first Christmas after my divorce. I’d been with my first husband for seven years and had left Canada, friends, family and career to follow him to the U.S.
I sat for the gorgeous solstice service offered each year by Paul Winter in the enormous New York City cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a dear friend and new beau beside me — loved, valued and deeply grateful not to be alone in a time that so celebrates togetherness.
Even gift-giving can be laden with emotion and anxiety.
I worked part-time in retail for 2.5 years. One man had no notion what his teenage daughter might enjoy while another practically begged me for help: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”
For many years, my family gave me “gifts” that were clearly last-minute afterthoughts or the little free samples that come with cosmetic purchases. Nor were my gifts to them graciously or happily accepted.
The season can so quickly sour!
The first Christmas I introduced my husband Jose to my loud, argumentative family was typical. As usual, we were expounding on politics and economics, each of us thumping the table for emphasis, voices raised and fingers pointed, certainty — as usual — thick in the air. We never discuss emotion or feelings, never simply ask, “How are you?”
He finally slapped the table in exasperation: “Everyone take a turn!”
Like fighting dogs sprayed with a garden hose, we paused for a minute — stunned. Then, on we went.
Welcome to the family!
Christmas Eve is also difficult for me, the night that, when I was 14, my mother had a nervous breakdown in the foreign country where we were living, leaving me and a friend in an unfamiliar city at midnight. Within a few weeks, I had left the country and her care, returning to live with my father and his girlfriend; I barely knew her and I hadn’t lived with him since my parents’ divorce seven years earlier.
I never lived with my mother again. We since spent some crazy Christmases — like the one in Cartagena, Colombia, (where the police stopped our cab and asked us to step out to be frisked), and later got sunstroke.
But in the past four years I haven’t seen or spoken to her.
Nor will I see my father and two half-brothers, spending their Christmas together in Canada; one brother nurses a long-held grudge against me so that’s it for family holidays that include me.
So the words family and home don’t make much sense to me in any traditional “home for the holidays” way.
Instead of focusing on lack, I’m choosing joy.
We’re now in Paris, a city filled with sweet memories for me, a city I lived in at 25 for a year while on a journalism fellowship. It was a year that changed my life and my career, and I’m still in touch with some of my fellow fellows decades later.
Paris for me — a Canadian living in New York — still feels like home for that reason, even after years between visits.
Jose is my family now. He proposed to me at midnight on Christmas Eve after church, standing beneath our church’s lych gate as snow hissed around us. He knew how sad that night had been for me and decided to re-brand it with a happier memory.
I hope — wherever you are and whoever you’re with and whatever you celebrate — you have a calm, loving, happy holiday!
Thank you all for the gift of your attention to Broadside. It means a lot!