I had the oh, so snottily New York Timesian — “Oh, do people blog anymore?” asked of me at Jose’s going-away party last year (while snarfing the cake I paid for.)
I write for a living, and have been doing so for (gulp) 40 years, since I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto, utterly desperate to (as I did) become a journalist.
No Internet then.
People ask me: if you’re a professional writer, why on earth would you write unpaid, i.e. blog?
For exploring ideas.
For a place to muse aloud.
For a space in which to chew ideas.
For civil conversation with smart, interesting people across the globe.
For writing that isn’t, for once, tailored to someone else’s tone, length and subject matter.
That wasn’t, of course, the original plan.
But then Lorna and Sarge (now — yay! — her husband, and proud parents of the gorgeous girl Isla) came to New York, and I’d been reading her blog and she’d been reading mine and it was as if we’d been friends for years through our words flung out there so hopefully into the ether.
She in Scotland, I in suburban New York.
Like many of my new blog friends, we’re also decades apart in age, but perhaps not in sensibility — our shared love of books and travel and ideas and wonder at the world.
When I went back to Paris, in December 2015, I was thrilled to meet Mallory and Juliet and Catherine and others who were readers of my blog.
I met them in public places, thinking — This is nuts! What if she doesn’t show up? What if she’s an axe murderer?(Sadly, now, more of a worry than it was then.) No doubt, they, too had their fears.
Then off we went and, every time without fail, had a lovely face to face experience.
This week I met yet another smart, savvy, worldly young woman, the legendary X who’s the bestie of Cadence, the author of Small Dog Syndrome from London; she and I finally met face to face — after years of mutual admiration — in the train station after I got off the train from Paris in my brown vintage fedora.
We talked for so long her husband called to make sure we were OK.
X was everything you’d expect of a friend of Cadence and we sat at the bar and drank cold beer and shared notes on life in journalism in New York City. I would never have met her had I not read Cadence, nor emailed her privately, nor (!) stayed with her in their London flat (sleeping on an air mattress on the living room floor) and we all survived.
The word “friend” only became a verb thanks to social media.
One once befriended someone or made a friend; note the verb to make.
It takes time, and effort and consistent interest.
It also requires a shared sense of values and expectations if it’s to last more than a few days or weeks.
Today it’s become a word with multiple meanings, some of which...don’t mean a thing.
Having just weathered intense cyber-bullying by an online group fellow women writers, (none of whom have ever met or spoken with me), I spent some time culling my “friend” list on Facebook.
More than 200 people are now gone from my list of “friends”, as I realized I’d allowed myself to accept requests from people I didn’t know well, assuming — innocently, hopefully and very stupidly — that everyone who wanted to be my friend also knew, and shared, my values, ethics and/or professional expertise.
Several of these women proved to be Trojan horses. Lesson, painfully, learned.
So, back to true friendship.
This week also reminded me what it looks and feels like:
Face to face conversation.
On Monday I went for lunch with a woman who lives across the street from us, and who I hadn’t spent time with for at least six months. We’d had a disagreement last fall, and stopped our weekly walks.
I wasn’t sure we would continue our friendship. We seemed, suddenly, just too different.
Then she was felled, (luckily, getting better now), with a challenging acute illness.
I took her flowers, shocked at the trials she was facing and sorry for her difficulties.
This week, I returned to the relationship with a deeper gratitude for her good humor, her sense of perspective and delight in her recovering health.
Like a handful of people, she knows me very well.
There is something so comforting talking to someone who just knows you, loves you and accepts your quirks.
On Wednesday, I met another friend, a newer one, and we went to the Met Museum after having lunch at Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, both on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
We’re still getting to know one another, and she is a working artist and art teacher — we geek out over things like Vikings and monstrances.
On Thursday, I caught up with a woman who was originally a story source, a brilliant (Harvard MBA, ho hum) finance expert.
I feel so lucky when I meet and get to know a woman who’s both wicked smart — and deeply kind. What a pleasure to see her, even once a year when she visits New York.
On Saturday — (this is not a typical week!) — I had breakfast with a fellow writer, a specialist in medical topics, visiting from Toronto, then we both spoke on panels at a writers’ conference.
A woman I’d never met before stayed behind after my panel to talk to me….and we kept talking until midnight when we had to run for our respective trains to get home.
Whew! What an energizing, delicious gift this week has been.
The gift of friendship.
And how helpful, for all of us, to see the world through others’ eyes and their perspectives. It’s so easy to get caught in your own little worldview, trapped by your own firmly-held opinions.
A key difference I’ve seen here in the U.S. is a discomfort with, (understatement, more like terror of), major differences of opinion, certainly on issues like politics, religion, feminism, the usual flashpoints. If you don’t agree 100 percent on everything, discussion (certainly online) flares into nasty, name-calling argument and boom!
There goes your “friendship.”
I’m slow to make new friends.
Having been betrayed by a few, I’m now much warier about letting a new person in close.
True friendship takes time to grow, to deepen, to broaden.
You may have to forgive them, (and they you!)
Intimacy can be challenging.
Some flee at the first sign of friction.
Coming from a family of origin whose typical stance is estrangement or anger, my friends are my family.
Few things are as precious to me as the intimacy of friendship, old and new.
How about you?
Do you make friends quickly and easily?
Have you weathered the sting of deception and betrayal?
“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.
Is it possible? It is for Jose and I. Maybe because we have no children, nor even nieces or nephews to enjoy and hang out with. If we want to savor the company of people decades our junior, in a purely social setting, how does that happen?
For me, it’s been finally meeting a few blogging friends, women whose work I’ve known for years, and vice versa, but who’ve never met face to face.
Blogging blind date!
What if — we both feared — the other person was actually awful IRL? Had bad breath or terrible manners or was a nasty snob who edits her work so carefully that none of that shit leaked out into their blog posts?
I had followed Cadence Woodland, who writes Small Dog Syndrome, since she was writing it from a police department (what?!) of a “religious university” she discreetly refused to name in some far-off American state. I had no inherent interest in that sort of work, but her voice, then as now, was witty, funny, observant.
A good blog lets you feel the personality of its writer; if you like them on-line, then, it seems logical you’d enjoy one another’s company just as much in person. She and I then worked together for a year when I needed help with my freelancing business and she needed some extra income — and we got to know one another better, by phone, email and Skype.
But we still hadn’t met, until I asked if I might stay with them in London in their small flat.
For a week.
(Would that wreck it all?)She and her husband Jeff have moved permanently to London, so our first meeting was at St. Pancras train station, as I came off the Eurostar from Paris. Wearing, natch, a brown fedora. She flew at me with a ferocious hug. It was adorable. We sat down for a coffee and talked for so long that Jeff called to ask: “Where are you? Are you OK?” And we were.
She was all I’d expected, and more, moving at the speed of sound through London’s crowded Underground, touring me to all her favorite spots, from Borough Market to Portobello to Spitalfields. We had a blast.
I can’t decide if you have to be an “old soul” in your 20s — or someone with a very young spirit in your 50s — to have such a friendship. I’m not sure it really matters why it works, as long as both people enjoy it. It’s also, like any friendship, reliant on shared values, interests and tastes, whether medieval history, where to find a great lipstick or how to navigate ex-pat life.
For me, these transcend age or life experience.
Same with Mallory Guinee, a recent Carleton College grad teaching high school English in Paris and who blogs at May Meander. She impulsively invited me out for coffee while I was there, then thought “Oh…what if….?” We, too, had a terrific time, so much so that we spent my last night in Paris having dinner together again. She’s only 23, but has traveled to Mali, plays the harp and has a sense of the world that is far beyond that of many people decades older.
The other way Jose and I have made several friends in their 20s is through his mentoring of young photojournalists through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, an annual event open to anyone who’s a student member of NABJ or NAHJ.
While we’ve remained close to many of our “kids”, two of them — Alex and Molly — feel like our own in some ways. Both have spent many nights on our sofa, (we live in a one-bedroom apartment), and we’re in touch with them via Facebook, Twitter, phone and email. Alex just moved to Istanbul for his final semester of college and I’m hoping we can visit him there. Here’s his portfolio and hers; Molly spent all last summer traveling SouthEast Asia as a working photographer. Not bad for someone who is barely halfway through her 20s!
I feel lucky to know these people, for a few reasons. Selfishly, they’re just great fun! Like Jose and I, they, too are bright, ambitious and fairly driven, determined to carve out creative success in a difficult world. We’re happy to mentor them as well.
But, I admit, I feel out of step with my 50-ish female peers. We live in an affluent suburban New York county and women there have mostly followed predictable paths: early marriage, motherhood and stay-at-home life supported by high-earning husbands or their own corporate incomes. They live in big houses, drive new cars and dote on their kids and grandchildren. Few have traveled widely, beyond luxury resorts, or have taken the financial and social risks of ex-patriate life.
None of which I can relate to.
And, by my age, you have (ideally!) some life wisdom to share, about work, love, friendship. If you have no younger relatives, no one wants to hear it. But our younger friends are often hungry for advice and insight from a loving adult who’s not their parent or boss.
It’s an interesting relationship in other respects — we’re looking at (we hope!) retirement within the decade and our younger friends are still seeking their first or better jobs. I watch their anxiety and excitement over this with relief that I’m mostly done with that part of my life; they can see, looking at us, what decades of hard word and frugality can bring: a nice home, retirement savings, a good partner to share it with. I’ve also seen my parents’ lifelong enjoyment of younger friends, so this just seems normal to me.
How about you?
Do you have enjoy friendships with anyone decades older or younger than you?
So I’m a member of an on-line women/writers’ group, now my go-to site, a place I waste spend wayyyyyy too much time.
It’s a place where women across the U.S. and Canada, from the UAE to India, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, with varying views on sexual preference, ranging in age from 20s to 50s (very few of us!) rant, rave, laugh, weep, share, support and are forging some powerful emotional bonds.
There are women with multiple tattoos (I have none); women in graduate school and women teaching college; women working on some of the biggest television shows out there (!), those happily pregnant and those who never want to have children, and women frustratedly un or under-employed.
In American culture, at least, it’s rare to find a group of women who both raucously and respectfully disagree, let alone share stories and support that are not exclusively focused on one issue.
We talk about everything: work, men, women, family, drunken misadventures, marriage/divorce/dating, how to navigate new situations…Interestingly, we rarely talk about the mechanics of work. We have plenty of other places to do that.
Some of us finally met face to face last week. What a joy!
It was such a pleasure to just sit for hours and get to better know an eclectic, smart, funny, passionate group of women.
The one thing I’ve always craved, sought and struggled with is a sense of community.
Most people think of a geographic location when they use that word, but today, thanks to social media, we’re often much more connected — emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally — to people we have yet to meet IRL (in real life), yet who passionately share our convictions, values and/or interests.
As I’ve written here before, I live in a place — the wealthy suburbs north of New York City — where I typically fail to connect meaningfully with many people. Women my age are corporate warriors with high six-figure salaries and husbands to match or stay-at-home mothers in enormous mansions grooming perfect children.
I don’t have children and we are not wealthy.
Not my crowd, for sure!
I began attending a local church in 1998 that Jose and I still visit every few weeks or so. But it, too, is too safe, white, wealthy and non-political for my tastes.
I also have been working alone at home, with kids or pets, since 2006. That solitude and isolation can start to feel claustrophobic without the company of others.
So community matters deeply to me.
I also left behind my country, culture and friends when I moved to New York in 1989. As a professional writer, I belong to several groups, on and off-line, that revolve around our work. But they are often simply transactional — Who’s the editor? What do they pay? — not social.
I recently began teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and have already attended a four-hour orientation session, where I met a fellow instructor, a lively, friendly young woman. The school’s president invites us all to his home in mid-September for a reception, and I attended a celebration of their new MFA program, a two-hour affair (after four hours of class that day!)
It feels good to be welcomed, even as an adjunct, into a new, thriving and creative community.
Where, when and how do you find or build a sense of community?
It was a sad, sudden shock to read this from a fellow blogger recently:
It’s raining, and the sky is overcast. I cried.
I woke up to an empty apartment. The water leaking from the ceiling is hitting a tin bucket, sending out an echo. I cried.
Today, I am not strong. But I’m giving myself permission to feel it all. And I’m not so sure that’s weak, either.
It turns out, losing what feels like home is much more difficult than I thought. Buddy. Georgia. They were my home.
I respect him and what we had far too much to shell out details to a semi-faceless-web, but I feel that to move on, I have to say this “out loud”; Georgia and I have gone our separate ways.
The blog, Key and Arrow, written by a young schoolteacher in Austin, Texas, has been a source of pleasure for me for a while now. Every Monday, she posts “Seven Things”, a recap of seven pleasures from her past week, charming and inspiring, with lots of photos of meals, her man, her dog…
Now the man and dog are gone and I, too, feel a little bereft.
The Internet is odd that way, all this uninvited intimacy with strangers, people we will likely never meet in person, but whose children and pets and lives become a part of ours for a while, possibly for years.
Some people disclose a stunning amount in their blogs, as I have occasionally as well, including infidelity, mental illness, family strife and addiction. The Internet sometimes feels like a safe place to park difficult and complicated feelings, hoping against hope that someone else out there will read you and say:
“You, too? I thought that was only me!”
Admitting publicly, especially to strangers, that your life is actually complicated and difficult takes guts. We’re not all perky and shiny all the time, and blogs that reveal little of the writer behind it quickly lose me. There’s plenty of that faux fabulousness on Facebook already.
But doing so also means trusting that others will read you with compassion and empathy — not schadenfreude and voyeurism. (It happens.)
It takes trust.
I like that it demands trust, as when intimacy is met with kindness, friendship blossoms.
In the past few years, I’ve become friends with several readers of Broadside and plan to finally meet and visit with two of them, both living in England, this winter; both moved from reader to new friend after I posted this very dark and personal piece about my mother.
I find these web-created friendships sustaining, as sometimes people thousands of miles away better comprehend us than our own families, colleagues or neighbors.
A new movie by Noah Baumbach, (whose “Squid and the Whale” I really disliked), addresses the push-pull of female friendship in your mid-20s, “Frances Ha.” It’s about Frances and Sophie, who meet at Vassar and are still BFFS at 27, but being pulled apart by work, life and boys.
Fans of the series “Girls” on HBO might find some of the themes similar, and Adam Driver, who stars in the series, is also in this movie.
Frances is a modern dancer, tall and gangly, financially struggling and a bit of a mess. She never brushes her hair and is repeatedly pronounced “undateable”, with which (ouch) she is quick to agree.
Sophie snags the banker boyfriend, Patch, and moves with him to Tokyo.
It really hit a chord for me and I left the theater, alone, an hour before sunset, feeling melancholy and wishing I still had a best friend like that, someone with whom I still shared a ton of history, in-jokes and the sort of sexual secrets that make for excellent blackmail material.
I lost my BFF, or she dumped me, or maybe or we just got fed up with one another — it was never clear or resolved or even discussed or addressed — about a decade ago.
We looked alike and were often mistaken for sisters. Hyper-competitive, in life and with one another, she’d say, “I’m the smart one.” I’d say: “I’m the pretty one.” Or vice versa.
I knew her mom and Dad and sister. I knew she’d always have a huge hunk of Brie in the fridge. She had three cats, one so enormous he could have doubled as a doorstop. I still remember their names.
Both bubbly, chatty Geminis, we were also both ex-pats who had moved to the U.S. and then to New York. She had a tiny studio in the West Village and we’d go dancing at Polly Esther’s and flirt with boys a decade younger, sometimes more. We both dated wholly inappropriate men. One of hers was a musician in a famous band who had very few teeth. Another was a friend of mine, but they argued constantly and eventually broke up.
Like Frances and Sophie in the movie, we sometimes platonically shared a bed and woke up giggling on a sunny Saturday with nothing to do and no one to report to. Bliss!
She held my hand while I wept really hard during my first divorced Christmas and climbed a hill in a snowstorm after the cab couldn’t go any further to accompany me to my first knee surgery — and caught me as I fell, tree-like, into the bathroom door afterward.
We went to visit her home country, where her father scared me by getting really drunk. We hired a small airplane and a pilot to fly us to where we wanted to go, meeting him at dawn. It felt exactly like the final scene in Casablanca.
But she met a man I didn’t like much, who boasted about his money and looked at me like I smelled funny and replaced all her charming furniture with his ugly, chunky, dark choices. She married him and moved to a huge lakeside house.
I saw little hope for our friendship continuing. And I was right.
It’s been a long time since we stopped being friends.
I’m lucky, though, to still have two dear girlfriends of very early vintage — one from high school and one from my first year of university. They knew me thinner, pre-marriage(s), before I left our native Canada for the United States in 1988. I see each of them once a year or so and keep up with them by phone mostly.
One of them, even though she was then living so far away she was practically in Alaska, came all the way to New Y0rk for my first wedding and again, in 2011, to Toronto for my second. We met when we eye-rolled at one another in our freshman English class. We added a few vowels to our first names and became The Pasta Twins. I still use the tattered, stained cookbook she gave me in the ’80s.
I pray that both of these women remain in my life for decades yet to come. It’s very comforting to be deeply known yet still well-loved, to share so much of one another’s long life histories. We need to explain nothing — why we ditched that man or how our mother drives us nuts or the reasons we’re still chasing a few unlikely dreams.
So I get this email a while back from Elizabeth Harper, an American from Atlanta who fell in love with an Englishman and now lives in Cornwall, and who writes the lovely blog, Gifts of the Journey: “I saw something that made me think of you and I’ve mailed it.”
I wondered what it might possibly be, while touched and grateful that a woman I’ve yet to meet or even speak to was kind enough to think of me and send me a present.
A pub bar towel. Thanks, Elizabeth! So fun!
The other night, barely minutes after I posted, I got an email from Michelle in Minneapolis, pointing out (thank you!) a typo I’d missed. How unlikely, and helpful, to have a sharp-eyed volunteer copy-editor a few time zones in the other direction.
She and I had breakfast there in October 2012 when I went out to give a speech at the University of Minnesota. We had a blast. It’s the oddest moment, these blogging blind dates, when you finally put a voice, face and body to the person whose writing you’ve been reading for months, maybe years. She writes The Green Study, in a voice that’s consistently clear, crisp and no-nonsense.
Plus, the woman served in the military as a Russian linguist!
Depending what you write about, a fellow blogger may come to know you quite well indeed, and vice versa. I felt immediately at ease with Michelle, and we quickly fell into deep conversation.
My first blog blind date was with Lorna, a young woman in Edinburgh who writes the blog Gin & Lemonade. I met her and her fiance, then beau, at a Manhattan bar.
On our recent vacation, we had a sudden family crisis to deal with and I knew, of all people, Elizabeth would know how to cope. It felt bizarre to fire a panicked email across the Atlantic, but she quickly wrote back a long and compassionate reply — a measure of her great kindness, as she and John had just survived a truly terrifying experience, a head-on collision. Here’s her post about it, with photos.
A few months ago, I needed a new assistant, someone really smart to represent me and my business interests. I need a challenging mix of charm and utter tenacity and wondered if she might be the one, and now she is. Thanks to her candid, tart blog posts, I knew we shared a love, and experience of, world travel and ex-pat life, and a stiff upper lip in the face of unpleasantness, personal or professional. You can’t intuit that from a resume!
Have you met or worked with any of your blog pals?
I moved to New York, to a wealthy suburb filled with soccer moms, (I’m neither), in 1989. When I first married, in 1992, many of those attending were more acquaintances, with a few old friends, all from my native Canada, mixed in.
Only in the past two years have I finally — thank heaven — felt like I, and my second husband, have found a strong network of good friends. I’d always found it really easy to make friends, so was surprised and hurt at how hard it was for me here. I’d only lived in one other place that was lonelier, in a town in rural New Hampshire for 18 months, that was the roughest place I’ve ever been.
No matter what I said or did, or how many times we entertained, nada. Everyone was married, pregnant, eager to become so, or a mother. I had nothing in common with anyone I met — until the very last month after we’d decided to get the hell out and move to New York when I met Penny, a funny, warm, down-to-earth single mom in the rug store where she worked. We stayed friends for a decade.
It’s not easy making new friends as an adult, once you’ve left school and especially if you, as I have for six years, work alone at home all day.
Which is why I read and enjoyed this charming new book, “MWF Seeks BFF” by a young (28 yr old) writer who went on 52 dates in Chicago in search of new friends. She writes lucidly about the challenges and how rare it is to just click! with someone new and hope they’ll carve out room in their life for you.
As I headed into major surgery, and Jose made up a list of people who might want to hear about my progress, I realized how lucky we are now to have found so many people who genuinely care about us both.
How did I meet them?
— Freelance work. Several are people I met at professional events aimed at writers. One is a woman who intelligently and sensitively edited my work when she ran a women’s magazine.
— My husband’s colleagues. He works full-time in an office at a newspaper, a place where people are really busy. But I found a lovely new friend in his department, a fellow Francophile.
— Pool aerobics. I don’t hang out with my classmates, but seeing the same women week after week for two years has created some new friendships, even if largely limited to the locker room.
— Church. I’m not at all like most of the women at our church, but the women who have become close friends have taken the time to see past what some see as my bohemian exterior. (I’m hardly a hippie, but we don’t live in a huge house, or a house at all, and our household income is probably 30 percent of theirs.)
— Board work. Any sort of volunteer work where you have to show up regularly means you have time to get to know one another, know that you share a passion for the same issues and care enough to commit time to that cause. One of my best friends is someone I’ve been on a volunteer board with for a few years. You see one another in wholly different roles and behaviors than simply going out for drinks or a movie.
— Friends of friends. One local woman is an artist I met at a party here.
— A dinner party filled with strangers. One of my favorite women friends first sat opposite me at a fun dinner party held occasionally for 20 paying strangers at a home in Queens. Turns out her Mom attended the same Toronto ballet school and we’re both Canadian, have lived in foreign countries and both speak French.
— Team sports and classes. I’ve been playing softball for a decade with a group of men and women from their 20s to 70s, including a retired ironworker in his 70s and a 30-something pastry chef. We have lawyers, a few doctors, schoolteachers, and have gotten to know one another very well on that dusty field. Athletic pals see our sweaty, exhausted, sore, injured (and triumphant)core.
— My own work colleagues. One of my new friends is someone I met through my freelance work for The New York Times, who has since moved into another full-time position elsewhere.
— Blogging. One of my new friends is a man who also blogged for True/Slant when I did, and we quickly became mutual admirers of one another’s work. We’ve read each other’s manuscripts and I love having a handsome, smart, single guy friend to keep Jose on his toes!
My friends range in age, from 30 years younger to 30 years older. Some have young kids, some have grand-kids, some have teenagers and a few, like me have no kids at all. Maybe typical of the women I find interesting, we almost never talk about kids, but about work, the news, our families.
I do. Only when I encounter people with zero ability — or interest in trying — to charm, do I realize how much I appreciate it.
By charm, I don’t mean flattery or obsequiousness, or schmoozing or gossip or small talk, all of which I really dislike.
And charm, without underlying character and decent ethics, means nothing. But I do enjoy the company of people, of any age, who know that many of us are shy or private or perhaps feeling a little sad or depressed and make it their job to ensure we are happy in their presence. I grew up in a family of people, several of them very accustomed to public attention, who valued this ability and so I, too, have grown to value it myself.
Having said all that — a silent retreat means a blessed break from the need to talk, smile, chat, impress, charm.
I spend a lot of my time and energy making sure the people in my life are onside: friends, family, neighbors, clients, editors, colleagues.
To sit in a room, then, as we do at the retreat, mere feet away from someone — in the meditation hall or at large shared tables at breakfast — and not have to smile, nod, chat. What a relief.
There is a cultural piece to this as well.
I grew up in Canada, a more emotionally reserved nation than the U.S., a place (why?) where we all constantly being exhorted to “Have a nice day!” by people who wouldn’t pull us from a burning building. I loathe faux intimacy, and America’s confessional culture rewards it, punishing people who prefer a slower burn to the sparkly, chatty, engaging persona that marks the verbally facile and generally celebrated.
I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me here.
(How about you?)
Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.
A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.
To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.
I’d forgotten how private I am and how much I dislike being in large groups of people I do not know well. Remaining silent and apart is a welcome break from having to — or feeling I must — charm.